Historic battles

History teaches dates and facts. Social studies offers context and perspective. Why are the two disciplines so fiercely at odds?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Pop quiz: Which description best fits Thomas Jefferson?

A. Founding Father; third president of the United States elected in 1800; and author of the Declaration of Independence, adopted in 1776.

B. Statesman, author, inventor, architect, but also slaveholder and member of the landowning elite.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The answer depends on whom you are asking.

History students are more likely to answer A. Social studies students would gravitate toward B.

The hypothetical test question illustrates two approaches that are fighting for prominence in schools around the country. Traditional history classes would pay more attention to Jefferson's leadership, carefully placed within a framework of dates. Social studies classes, however, are more likely to study Jefferson as a multifaceted individual, with his position of wealth and privilege coming under the microscope.

At the core lie two distinct views of education. History advocates insist on a return to traditional instruction, while opponents assert that students need context. What the argument hides is a basic agreement that schools need to do a better job of teaching history. But neither side seems prepared to listen to the other.

In recent years, the issue has taken on added urgency. Standardized testing in math and English has forced many school districts to spend less time and money on both history and social studies. Research grants are dwindling. Recent reports on the lack of knowledge of history and civics among US students have grabbed headlines.

But if concerns have heightened about the quality of social studies and history instruction, the debate about what should be taught and how is hardly new.

Once upon a time, history was a staple in US public school curricula. But social studies became popular starting in the 1960s, inspired by the work of Charles Beard, an early 20th-century social reformer and Columbia University professor.

Social studies was supposed to remedy rote learning by encouraging an interdisciplinary approach. After all, Professor Beard pointed out, history didn't occur in a vacuum. The varied perspectives of economics, geography, sociology, anthropology, and current events would add meaning and relevance to history, or so the theory went.

In many schools, social studies were adopted for younger grades, seen as a softer study, preparing preteens for the more rigorous study of history in high school.

But in the view of some, a certain fuzziness crept into the field with the social studies approach and has been corrupting history classes ever since.

History advocates sputter at the mention of social studies, a field they see as too touchy-feely and lacking in rigor. But those who favor social studies blanch at what they see as an attempt to drive history back into the territory of rote learning.

But arguments about rigor or the lack thereof sometimes conceal another, deeper disagreement. It's an ancient conundrum: whether the purpose of education is to transmit the culture or transform it. Traditional history advocates say that learning history should enable one to join the culture, to participate as a citizen. A more liberal view deems the teaching of history a stepping- stone to improving society.

Lately, the rhetoric has grown hostile. Social studies teachers "have contempt for history," says Will Fitzhugh, who directs the National History Club.

"More than half of them didn't take history to begin with," he says. "The old joke that social studies is taught by athletic coaches is still sadly true in many places."

Stephen Thornton, a professor of social studies and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, says the attack on his profession is unfounded. "What do they think we're teaching if it's not history? The problem is that they want a particular kind of history - their version."

He continues, "They want a return to the Eisenhower era, a time when there was less open dissent in society."

History advocates such as Chester Finn at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation say that some consensus is needed on what kids learn.

"Social studies is peddling bad stuff," he says. "It's teaching kids that democracy is deeply flawed, and that America's evils exceed its virtues."

The foundation recently published a collection of essays, "Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?," that lay out a mission to re-instill appreciation for American government. The implication: Kids who know how government works will grow into good citizens who vote and support the US government.

Patriotic duty to know history

Studying key documents such as the US Constitution is essential, says Nishant Mehta, who teaches history to middle schoolers at St. Alcuin Montessori in Dallas.

"The students have to ask: 'When I grow up, what rights will I have as a citizen?' " he says.

Mr. Mehta, who emigrated from India as a teenager, speaks strongly about the obligations of living in a democracy, something he imparts to his students.

Professor Thornton says students of history learn to recognize multiple viewpoints and realize that objectivity is an illusion. They apply more critical thinking to national politics, and are less likely to accept what leaders say at face value.

While such students are generally more interested in national and world events, this doesn't automatically translate into participation in the democratic process. Surveys have not shown a direct correlation between the study of history and higher rates of voting, for example.

If there's no guarantee that history classes will turn out card-carrying voters, then what is all the fuss about?

Dr. Finn and others are concerned that history is being reduced to anecdotes.

For example, if the Civil War is taught mainly through slave diaries or visits to battlefields, kids are missing the bigger picture. They won't know who Robert E. Lee was, or William Tecumseh Sherman. They won't know important dates.

But to many, the solid history approach sounds like a return to the bad old days when students memorized facts and regurgitated them for exams - only to forget them an hour later. Even the most ardent traditionalist today would not argue for a revival of the "stand and deliver" method of history teaching.

"History doesn't have to be boring, just because you're learning content," Finn says.

Mr. Fitzhugh agrees. "Students need to engage with history in a profound way," he says, "through great storytelling, reading books, debating, writing research papers."

"You have to teach for meaning," says Barbara Slater Stern, associate professor in the secondary education program at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. "Otherwise, the kids won't retain anything."

The dog ate my history book

At the same time, educators of all stripes worry that history textbooks have been "glitzed up and dumbed down," says Priscilla Linden, who teaches social-studies education at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. "All the effort has been to get kids' attention. Now it's gone to the other extreme - you can't find the message."

Textbook publishers have tried to draw students in with anecdotes and asides, which makes it harder to find the substance. Even more startling, educators say, is that sometimes a classroom teacher has to consult another textbook or source to get the full story of an event.

Most troubling to historians like Fitzhugh is the notion that children are interested only in things that speak to their own experience.

"Kids like [to learn about] dinosaurs," he says. "How do dinosaurs relate to them?" It's insulting to children's intelligence to assume they are that narrow-minded, he says. "People do make an effort to learn things outside themselves. It stretches the mind."

The common enemy, both sides agree, is time. The school day is already packed with test preparation and other requirements. To paint a balanced picture of history - in all its broad sweeps and tiny brushstrokes - is a daunting task.

Teachers hold the line

"Teachers have considerable discretion to interpret curriculum for the situation they're in," says Thornton.

This is just what worries Finn and others. They say that without a national set of curriculum guidelines, kids are at the mercy of a biased or incompetent teacher. And they want higher qualifications for history teachers.

Thornton says a history degree solves only one part of the problem. If the teacher's degree is in ancient Chinese history, for example, it doesn't help her in teaching US westward expansion to elementary students.

"Further preparation is critical," he says.

But some say that one danger of the current battles between advocates of both history and social studies is that many of those arguing most vociferously are not classroom teachers.

They are theorists, but they are not the ones standing in front of a classroom of children every day, and their notions of what students need may be more rooted in ideology than in reality.

"The responsibility falls back on the teachers," Professor Linden says. "Until either [social studies theorists or historians] get into the trenches, they just won't understand."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...