With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What's Wrong with Social Studies

For an organization that claims to value diversity and debate as much as the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), precious little of either was to be found at its very own annual conference, held in Chicago in mid-November and attended by some 5,000 social studies teachers, professors, and itinerant experts. In fact, after scouring the program in search of sessions where the goals of social studies itself would be examined and, perish the thought, debated, I came up nearly empty. So I attended some other sessions.

The first was a series of presentations organized by the College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA), an NCSS affiliate. I was interested because these papers were textbook evaluations and, since we at Fordham are nearing publication of our own review of history textbooks, I hoped these university professors’ findings might be instructive. And they were, albeit not quite in the fashion intended by their authors.

One analyzed the portrayal of the United States in Canadian textbooks. The author traced her findings from textbooks published from the late 1800s through 1970--a peripheral topic and an analysis that stopped just when it might have gotten interesting.

The other claimed to examine “commonly used middle level social studies books” with an eye toward how they “depict American culture, society and lifestyle in comparison with the rest of the world.” In reality, the analysis focused mainly on how the textbooks failed to demonstrate that wealth distribution across and within countries is a zero sum game (a theory that most economists discredit)--and that, because America consumes a disproportionate share of resources, it contributes to poverty elsewhere on the planet.

This presenter also focused on how “the colonial history of exploitation” was not discussed as a source of contemporary third-world poverty, and implied that this failure to produce a more “balanced” view of economic history is due to the fact that textbook publishers are owned by multi-national corporations, who apparently have an interest in glossing over such facts. To correct for this textbook failing, she urged her listeners to check out some nonprofit organizations for supplemental materials. Her preferred on-line source is “Rethinking Schools,” which presents perhaps the most horrendously biased curriculum supplements I’ve encountered. (See for yourself at http://www.rethinkingschools.org.)

At CUFA’s closing session, keynote speaker Linda McNeil (Rice University) wowed the crowd with a passionate denunciation of No Child Left Behind’s accountability provisions as “demons of the law.” McNeil has long opposed standards and testing because, she believes, they cause the disappearance from classrooms of “rich and wonderful and complicated teaching and learning.” Her chief example in this particular speech: a student who had come to her to complain that he wasn’t going to see much artwork in his art class this year because the art teacher was busy helping students prepare for the upcoming math proficiency test. Of course, the students would be able to do basic math because of the extra attention they were getting, but this didn’t make it into her analysis of the “tragedy.”

McNeil went on to allege that some principals are pushing out the lowest performing kids so that their school’s test scores don’t suffer because of them. Rather than voicing outrage at principals who cheat both kids and accountability in this way, however, she and her audience vented their spleens at the accountability system itself. Their call to action for teachers and ed school professors: encourage parents to revolt against NCLB and craft more studies that would “prove” that standards and tests don’t improve student achievement.

CUFA’s sessions turned out to be a pallid preview of what I would face at the bona fide NCSS sessions. One of my favorites was entitled “they call it the social studies.” Its purpose was to help attendees understand that the field is not called history, civics, geography, and economics but social studies, and that this means students ought to study “social things with the goal of creating good citizens.” During this session we were asked to write down what we thought the five goals of social studies education should be, and to share our thoughts with our neighbors. My list included such heresies as “explain the foundations of our democracy” and “explain how the framers’ vision of liberty and equality paved the way for the eventual end of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and the feminist movement.” When I turned to share these goals with my neighbor--naïvely supposing that we’d be able to come to find some middle ground--I soon realized that we weren’t even playing the same game, let alone in the same ballpark. His goals were the ever popular “encourage critical thinking and community and civic engagement.” Nary a word about what students will think critically about or whether they’ll know enough to engage in a thoughtful debate in the first place.

As the group reassembled and people shared their goals more widely, I realized that mine were shared by nobody while my neighbor’s were shared by all. They spoke of empowering students to participate in the community, teaching them to make informed decisions, and teaching them integrity, conflict resolution and communications skills. Yet the teachers never mentioned how they would achieve these noble goals without providing historical context within which students can understand past, present and future events. Indeed, not one soul suggested that youngsters should learn about the origins of democracy, the founding of America, the conflict and change that has occurred throughout our history, or people who have played key roles in shaping that history. I got the sense that either the teachers take for granted that their students already know a lot about American history--heaven knows where they would have learned it if not in social studies class--or that they believed it doesn’t matter so long as they know “where to find the information.” The teachers also agreed that their job was to make social studies relevant and interesting, apparently by any means other than teaching actual historical content.

Throughout the conference, in plenary and small-group sessions alike, conspiracy theories abounded. To NCSS members, at least, the vast right-wing conspiracy is alive and thriving. Apparently their definition of “radical right wing” now includes anyone who advocates school choice, standards and accountability, alternative teacher certification, or other such reforms. Moreover, such “reformers” and policy makers are all part of a political conspiracy to undermine public education. I encountered precisely one person who could actually articulate what he thought the conspiracy was; everyone else settled for the simplistic assertion that “politics” is driving these unwelcome reforms.

The conspiracy, insisted one NCSS member whose name I didn’t catch, is driven by right-wing ideologues who use testing, standards, and accountability to set public schools up for failure. Then they’ll be able to divert public funding to private schools. The notion that these “ideologues” might just want what’s best for kids was rejected on its face as preposterous.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, however, I now have enough information to conclude the opposite: that the education establishment in general, and the NCSS in particular, are working energetically to shut down the kind of dissent and debate that makes effective reforms possible. Consider, for example, that while NCSS leaders discussed and denounced Fordham’s recent publication Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? at more than one session, they didn’t invite a single author, editor, Fordham staffer, or really anyone who disagrees with the status quo to engage in debate.

But it gets worse. The self-styled “Contrarians,” a tiny band of teachers and ed school professors within NCSS who believe that social studies urgently needs an overhaul, have tried for two years to get a session at the NCSS annual wingding. In 2002, though ostensibly granted a session, it was conveniently left off the program and thus couldn’t meet. This year, though their session was listed on the program, NCSS conveniently double-booked the room. So the Contrarians scrambled to find an empty room with no help from NCSS (and minimal help from the hotel). After two tries, they finally found a spot and were able to proceed on their own, no thanks to the NCSS.

A small group attended, including a hostile NCSS past president and a current board member. A few of the authors of Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? presented their arguments, then opened the floor for discussion--a real one that included debate of hotly contested issues, something that I had not seen in any other NCSS session. During this debate, however, I was amazed by the mean, ad hominem, and insulting nature of the comments from the social studies establishment. Though the NCSS board member said that a more “productive” way to air these matters would be for the Contrarians to hold a general session where they presented their ideas and brought in opponents who could debate the pros and cons, in fact NCSS for years now has refused to give the Contrarians any room at their conference, let alone a large room to hold a general session and debate.

The theme of this year’s conference was: “The power of one: How to make a difference in a changing world.” Based on the efforts of the NCSS elite to promote a one-sided look at social studies education while stifling all attempts to question the status quo, I can only conclude that they truly believe in the power of one--and fear that permitting even a single voice of dissent might put at risk the enormous influence they have over the field of social studies.

This article was first published as a guest editorial in the newsletter published by Education Gadfly.