Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Social Studies: The Forgotten Discipline In America’s Quest To Return to Educational Prestige

Before this piece begins, I would like to first apologize for lack of activity on this website resulting in what would appear to be, rightfully, a lack of faith in the original goals and ideals of this website.  There is no excuse for the inactivity.  I wish I had been as active as I had been just a year ago but I am unfortunately only human.  The circumstances need no explaining.  It has been very difficult for me to arrive at the conclusion that the problems I aim to cure are simply bigger than myself and as a result, I have dialed back my focus so that it is narrowed back down to my first priority, the students I am directly responsible for.  So with all that said, here are some thoughts on Social Studies within the current framework of America's current education focus.

(Author’s note: Usually for a submission such as this, I would prefer to compile a great deal of research and factual notes along with a detailed bibliography in order to put forth the most compelling argument possible for such a pivotal topic.  I wanted to put this out there as soon as possible though so time constraints have made this difficult.  Though it will lack citations and sources, the issues are real, the arguments are based off my own background knowledge of the issue, and the message should ring true for any Social Studies teacher working in today’s educational landscape.  In the future I plan to add more concrete research and thus, a more compelling argument and article on the issue at hand.  Until then, we have only a piece to pique some curiosity into the subject.)

The Old Testament.  The Holy Bible.  The Koran.  Plato’s Republic.  Machiavelli’s The Prince.  Aristotle’s Politics.  Darwin’s Origin of Species.  Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.  Rousseau’s Social Contract.  Hobbes’ Leviathan.  The Magna Carta.  Common Sense by Thomas Paine.  Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Federalist Papers.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.  Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.  The Geneva Conventions Treaties.  Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones.

These are just a few of some of the most influential writings that have shaped the history of our world and each of them has played a role in setting the stage for how the world will look when the 21st century comes to a close in less than 90 years.  They are the works of students of history, political science, philosophy, science, religion, and more.  Some writings have had negative impacts on history while most have had largely positive impacts.  Individually, they have impacted specific time periods or regions.  Collectively, they have defined the world as we know it today.  And yet, with the way secondary education is trending today in America, somehow these works, along with the rest of the curriculum content of Social Studies and the other social sciences, have become marginalized in the grand scheme of improving student achievement.

Why do I say that?  I say that because today in America, we have directed the focus of secondary education toward Reading/Language Arts and Math standardized test scores as well as a new buzzword acronym called STEM. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)  To be absolutely clear, there is nothing wrong with focusing on these things.  Reading/Language Arts and Math proficiency are vitally important in molding academically competent young adults and there is most certainly a great demand in our modern economy for experts in all of the STEM fields.  The importance of directing focus to these three areas cannot be understated; sustaining success and improving upon these is a major piece of the puzzle going forward in the 21st century for the United States of America.
Unfortunately, in the process of directing focus toward these areas, the Federal government, state governments, and local districts are overlooking the weight of everything that the Social Studies discipline encompasses.

Let us first begin by acknowledging the logical reasoning behind the importance of standardized testing.  All across the United States of America, individual teachers with unique methods and forms of assessing their students, execute their lessons and implement their grading systems as they embark upon each academic year evaluating whether or not students have demonstrated comprehension of the requisite subject matter.  While it would be convenient to simply trust all teachers and their judgment in evaluating students, in a time when student achievement seems to have declined overall, there must be a certain standard of proficiency that all teachers can be measured by so that we can accurately assess whether students are learning what is required of them. 

In order to measure that proficiency, standardized testing has become our go to device.  There was a time when Social Studies was considered a core subjects and it was even included in standardized testing but over recent years, the subject has slowly been fazed out of the core that is tested in these uniform assessments.  It is undeniable that we, as a nation, have prioritized to focus drastically more on Reading and Math scores.  And it needs to be stated once more that they do need focus.  They are foundational skills that are needed in order to succeed in the world of academics.  However, Social Studies cannot suffer de-emphasis in pursuit of this increased student achievement.  It is a subject that can only add value to student achievement and de-emphasizing it could leave future generations without the requisite knowledge to repair the fundamental problems facing our government today.

Science is another core subject that has been fazed out of standardized testing but fortunately for Science, secondary schools and colleges alike are promoting STEM in order to keep pace with an ever-evolving technological world.  There is an extra demand for college graduates in these STEM fields and thus, the subject of Science remains strategically important to secondary schools, once again, at the expense of focus on Social Studies.  In today’s modernized economy, there is very high demand for STEM skills while at the same time, there is a short supply of STEM skilled employees.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the STEM fields should not be promoted.  They should be promoted heavily; our standing in the world economy depends on our ability as a country to remain one of the top innovators developing effective technology regularly to help improve the quality of life on this planet.  Without an ability to spur this innovation and development with a steady supply of STEM skilled workers, our nation could undoubtedly take steps backward.  With all that said, let us move on to the significance of giving equal weight to the Social Studies discipline.

As mentioned earlier, Social Studies is becoming a forgotten subject in a quest to improve student achievement in America.  But why is it that we should make every effort possible to not forget about this ever-important subject?

The answer is simple.  Social Studies encompasses literally every single important discipline that is being prioritized today.  That is what history, the foundational component within Social Studies, is all about.  First let us look at Reading.  How did Reading become so  important?  Some time during the beginning of human civilization over in Mesopotamia, it was thought that information needed to be recorded somewhere.  Humans developed ways to write down information on different kinds of surfaces and that information was to be remembered and recalled upon when needed.  Soon enough, Hammurabi’s Code, a set of written laws, were written in order to ensure that this civilization had some sort of standard to live by.  We decided as a species that there should be some order to our experience here on earth so that we could limit chaos and uncertainty.

Over the years, the uses of reading and writing evolved and took on forms besides laws.  Families soon recorded their family histories.  Elderly humans wrote down stories of their experiences so that they could pass on lessons to future generations.  Individuals began to move away from their families but could still communicate with them through written correspondence.  Generations passed and reading began to evolve further.  Now people were reading and writing not just for necessary purposes like recording information or communicating, now reading and writing was being used for fun.  People wrote poems and read them to friends so everyone could observe and appreciate their surroundings together.  It was being used for pleasure and entertainment; humans were actually writing plays and putting on performances so that several people could gather together to appreciate the art of theater and entertain themselves when they were not tending to their farms or other business.  Now people could even make money with the written word.  While at one point, reading and writing was used to convey basic lessons to future generations, it soon became a method of transferring huge swaths of information and knowledge to anyone around the world so that someone in one region could attain the same understanding of any subject as someone in a completely different region.  Thus began the human history of the written word, grammar rules, reading comprehension, and the entire variety of languages that we use to understand these words and sentences mashed together that provide us intelligence.  Social Studies reminds us of the how and why we are able to read at all.

In teacher training programs across the country, it is well known that in order to motivate students to learn the material we are trying to convey to them, it is our duty to make them understand why they are learning it.  What is the point of knowing grammar if one does not understand why we use it?  Why should students appreciate Shakespeare or Greek Tragedies if they do not recognize why theater and entertainment became significant or how it affected the time periods they were used in?  Why do students try frustratingly to figure out why a2 + b2 = c2 should matter to them.  Social Studies can tell them that for hundreds of years mathematicians in places like Babylonia, India, and even China had tinkered around with some form of this equation until finally the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras made clear that the formula does indeed work when used with right triangles.  Then students can understand the context of how it came to be and subsequently realize what type of benefit that knowing the theorem can provide in a real world situation.  Without the context of Social Studies, there is no answer for the why when students eventually ask, “Why do we have to learn this?”

In addition to setting context for other subjects, Social Studies also requires students to utilize the skills used in both Reading/Language Arts and Math.  While critical thinking responses are generated in Social Studies, writing, grammar, spelling, and many other analytical skills relevant to Language Arts are utilized and continually improved upon.  When analyzing wars, army sizes, casualty numbers, economic effects, and other factors all require students to recall their math skills.  These are only a couple of examples but the point remains.  Social Studies allows students to refine skills necessary for standardized testing while at the same time enriching themselves with knowledge about the history of human civilization.

If you move on to the STEM subjects as a whole, the entire STEM focus is rooted in history and Social Studies.  Advances in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics simply cannot happen in the course of world history without Social Studies.  Someone had to record information in a given field, distribute that information to others, and then that knowledge needed to be transferred, consumed, refined, and eventually the advances could evolve.  Where did the Wright Brothers get the idea that a flying machine was possible to create?  How did Alexander Hamilton get the idea that a waterfall could generate the energy needed to power factories spurring the Industrial Revolution?  What made Albert Einstein think relativity was a topic worth exploring?  How has Marie Curie’s discovery of radium affected developments across the 20th and 21st centuries?  How were the first bridges built and how did the technology advance?  How powerful were the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and what are the capabilities of today’s nuclear weapons?  What important things did the splitting of the atom lead to?  The list can go on and on but the point here is simply to demonstrate that none of the remarkable advances in innovation amongst the STEM disciplines is possible without the transfer of information and knowledge from person to person.  Social Studies remains the ultimate medium for that transfer.

Finally, Social Studies, as noted in the beginning, plays an even larger role in how society as a whole is shaped.  At the beginning of this piece, several influential writings were listed that have had a significant effect on how human history has shaped today’s world.  Let us start with the first three listed, the Old Testament, the Holy Bible, and the Koran.  Here you have three of the major religions in the world wrapped up into three separate books.  From the Old Testament, Judaism was born, the Ten Commandments came into existence, and monotheism became mainstream in a world that had previously been mainly polytheistic.  Then Jesus Christ, a known Jew, began to preach his own set of values, gained a set of followers, and eventually his words became the basis for the world’s most prevalent religion, Christianity, rooted in the Holy Bible.  As Christianity aged, a man named Muhammed frequented a cave often to pray and seclude himself.  Eventually he would reveal that he retreated to the cave because he was a prophet and messenger of God.  Soon the Koran was born and the region known as Middle East, would become a region dominated by the Muslim religion.  The effects of each of these developments still reverberate throughout our modern world.

In Ancient Greece, Plato put forth various rationalizations for the ways societies ought to be organized and we still look back on his insights today.  Aristotle put forth a foundation of work that would show politicians of all future generations exactly how to maintain a stable society.  Niccolò Machiavelli would build upon this foundation and craft a handbook on the ways in which rulers could harness and increase their reigns of power while at the same time ensuring a stable and efficient society.  Time passed and Thomas Hobbes showed us just how barbaric man could be without the rule of law in place to restrain our natural urges and actions.  John Locke and Jean-Jaques Rousseau would build upon Hobbes’ theory to explain how a civil society must resolve conflict and maintain order in Hobbes’ state of nature by way of a social contract amongst inhabitants.  Locke even set the stage for modern American Democracy when he implanted the ideas of separation of powers, religious tolerance, and the right of a people to revolt when the social contract is broken.

Soon in the newly European inhabited North America, Thomas Paine published “Common Sense”, a pamphlet declaring the virtue in revolution against a broken social contract, and it sparked a revolutionary fervor across the original thirteen colonies.  Within months, the Continental Congress deliberated the very issue of independence and eventually was left with little choice other than to part ways with the empire of Great Britain.  After depending on a miracle to win independence, America was born but a severely flawed government was set up leading to the creation of the United States Constitution.  This Constitution put numerous fail-safe mechanisms into place to prevent any one party from collecting too much power and those features have allowed America to persist over 200 years now.  It has helped us to become the most innovative economic super power to lead the world into a modern age that many could never have dreamed of.  But even this Constitution was not guaranteed an existence.  It took some of the most rationally developed and heavily researched arguments to convince the public that this new government was essential to the future success of America.  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with an assist from John Jay and the philosophers mentioned above) worked tirelessly and swiftly to ensure these Federalist Papers were widely and expediently distributed across the colonies to make an adopted US Constitution a reality.

Before too long, the unresolved issue of slavery came to the forefront in America as the daily life of a slave was detailed by Harriet Beecher Stowe in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  Americans were finally awoken to the horrors of slavery and the stage was set for Abraham Lincoln, intent on holding the union together, to help eradicate the institution of slavery.  But then we had a 20th century filled with frightening inhumanity as the ideas of Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” were butchered by a human named Joseph Stalin.  To follow that up, racism was never so evident as it was in Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” that preceded the Holocaust.  Fortunately, from these horrific events, progress did occur in many parts of the world especially in our nation during the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and other brilliant minds and brilliant words.  But not enough progress has yet been made and we now sit here, thirteen years removed from the beginning of the new millenium, wondering how this world will look in the next ten to twenty years.

We live in an America where the credibility of the brilliant Constitution has been thrown into question.  We have taken many steps backward in the name of human rights as a decade of fear from terrorism threatened the very freedoms we all take for granted.  The entire world economy was brought to its knees on account of greed and corruption from our nation’s political and financial leaders, destroying the bank accounts of average, hard working families all over the world.  The main stream media that we all indulge for news is also guilty of shoddy, special interests and corporate greed causing distortion of the facts that Americans need to know.  Now more than ever, Americans have zero confidence in their government’s ability to address the massive deficits on the horizon thanks to an aging population, social security pay outs, and skyrocketing health care costs that could cripple our economy in the next 10-20 years.  Only 15% of Americans approve of the way our legislature is doing its job and it is fair to surmise that most of the population simply does not see a way to force these incumbent, firmly entrenched, easily influenced by special interests elected politicians to do their jobs responsibly. And what happens in America, whether we like it or not, has reverberating effects all over the world as we remain the country that can exert the most influence on the economy of the world.

This is why de-emphasis of the Social Studies discipline would be a disaster heading forward in American education.  Without students finding Social Studies to be a priority, who is going to keep tabs on and hold decision makers accountable for the policies that have damaged our nation’s interests so badly and threaten our prestige further?  Will the greatest young minds gravitate toward political science if they know the real reward comes only from performing well in Reading, Math, and STEM subjects?  Elementary teachers all across the country are already burdened with a demand to improve Reading and Math scores and as a result, they are forced to ignore the Social Studies portion of their curriculum or spend very little time on it overall.  Fortunately, middle and high school levels have not quite reached that extreme just yet but we seem to be trending that way as the new Common Core Standards are implemented nationwide with the sole focus being Reading and math.

Personally, as a staunch historian, lover of politics, and hopeful agent of change, even I have struggled with the battle against Social Studies as I have considered acquiring a Math education certification in order to increase my chances of employment within the education system.  That is a sad indictment of the way things are.  I am in love with teaching my subject and getting young people interested and even excited about the fascinating things one can glean from the study of history, government, economics, or geography.  And even with that love, someone like me, thanks to difficult circumstances, has considered an alternative route that would take me away from conveying this wonderful knowledge to young people.  I want to inspire the next Martin Luther King, the next Abraham Lincoln, or the next George Washington so that this next great leader can come in and overcome all the obstacles that I have yet to surpass in trying to transform this country, and the world, for the better. 

More than any other time in our nation’s history, the solution to our education and national problems as a whole, demands an all encompassing, comprehensive answer that focuses on improving everything across the board.  De-emphasizing the Social Studies discipline in education will cause academics and the economy in this country to miss the forest for the trees.  Social Studies teaches us the very foundation of principles, checks, balances, reporting, and history that allows a nation to hold leaders accountable and propel itself forward away from the greed, corruption, and collapse that has doomed empires in the past.  Empires that have persisted much longer than our young nation.  Show me a citizenry with a passion for the honorable ideals that have progressed the human race in a positive fashion, and I will show you a nation that can thrive in every imaginable way in the 21st century and beyond.  This was the type of citizenry that allowed our country to reach the greatest heights any nation has ever seen and that is what we as a people must return to in order to propel past those previous heights.

To do that, it is imperative that education in this country does not forget this fact.  In pursuit of increased student achievement in Reading, Math, and STEM in America, Social Studies must remain an equal part of that equation.