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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Getting rid of Social Studies

Michael Knox Beran explains why American schools should abolish Social Studies. He's interested in the ideological history of why they came to be teaching Social Studies in the first place. There is a lot in this look back at pedagogical history that I'd been unaware of, but unsurprisingly the movement grew out of Progressive desires to redesign society.
Emerging as a force in American education a century ago, social studies was intended to remake the high school. But its greatest effect has been in the elementary grades, where it has replaced an older way of learning that initiated children into their culture with one that seeks instead to integrate them into the social group. The result was a revolution in the way America educates its young. The old learning used the resources of culture to develop the child’s individual potential; social studies, by contrast, seeks to adjust him to the mediocrity of the social pack.
He's totally correct about the sterile and boring Social Studies textbooks out there today compared to McGuffey's readers of the 19th century. I have a bunch of reprints of McGuffey's readers to show my students and they're simply amazed at what was considered standard fare back then for Americans half their age.
It might be argued that a richer and more subtle language would be beyond third-graders. Yet in his Third Eclectic Reader, William Holmes McGuffey, a nineteenth-century educator, had eight-year-olds reading Wordsworth and Whittier. His nine-year-olds read the prose of Addison, Dr. Johnson, and Hawthorne and the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant. His ten-year-olds studied the prose of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, and Macaulay and the poetry of Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

McGuffey adapted to American conditions some of the educational techniques that were first developed by the Greeks. In fifth-century BC Athens, the language of Homer and a handful of other poets formed the core of primary education. With the emergence of Rome, Latin became the principal language of Western culture and for centuries lay at the heart of primary- and grammar-school education. McGuffey had himself received a classical education, but conscious that nineteenth-century America was a post-Latin culture, he revised the content of the old learning even as he preserved its underlying technique of using language as an instrument of cultural initiation and individual self-development. He incorporated, in his Readers, not canonical Latin texts but classic specimens of English prose and poetry.
My concern has always been about how dull such Social Studies classes are in comparison to simply teaching history. Instead of coloring maps and listing the export products of Brazil or reading little synopses about the world's great religions, why not teach the history of these regions of the world? Sure economic and religious and social history plays a part there, but at least then it is in an important context instead of some isolated lesson that doesn't seem to relate to anything important.

I well remember when we had to do oral reports in sixth grade on another culture. All the other students were droning away with pictures they'd drawn of clothes worn in India or giving out ersatz snacks that were supposedly representative of African cuisine. The food was nice but really, what does that tell any child about Africa?

I got up and told the story of Rasputin which I'd read about in some book. When I got to the part telling about the multiple attempts to murder him and the effect this had on the history of the Russian Revolution I saw my classmates sitting riveted in their seats. I always remember that day as when I first started thinking about how cool it would be to teach history. And I still get that thrill today. Social Studies? Pah! Teach them history instead.

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