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The Death of Social Studies

We have only ourselves to blame for the death of Social Studies.

by Todd Stanley

Today in the state of Ohio, Social Studies met its untimely death. The cause of death is disinterest in the subject area as evidenced by the elimination of state tests in 4th and 6th grades. This acts as the nail in the coffin, as many other states had already given up on the subject area. At the time of its death, Social Studies was working on making students care about government, showing them how to be good citizens and community members, and teaching about the past so as not to repeat similar mistakes in the future.

It is survived by Reading and Math which will no doubt be focused on even more in the classroom with testing in nearly every grade level and teacher bonuses relying on these results.

Social Studies always hoped it was making a difference. At its best, Social Studies provided perspective, something many of our students, and our adults for that matter, are lacking. It will be sorely missed by a few but forgotten by all others.

In Lieu of flowers, Donations may be made in the form of letters to future generations. Please use small words.

Rest in peace, Social Studies.

state capitol buildingAlthough tongue-in-cheek, this obituary signals an alarming trend in education: the marginalization of Social Studies. There used to be four major content areas; reading, math, science, and social studies. Social Studies was always the red-headed stepchild of this bunch. After all, it did not fit into the educational philosophy of the three Rs; reading, writing, and arithmetic. Science too got its short shrift at times but with the advent of STEM and the need for engineers to usher us into the mid part of the 21st century, it too has become bigger and more valued than its step-brother. I began to see the devaluing of the subject when I taught middle school. Students would come to me in the 5th grade. Like any decent teacher, I would pre-assess to see what students already knew so as not to repeat content they already knew. After all, they had been taught for the past five years. What I found was that students did not seem to know much about Social Studies. One student said to me, “we didn’t do Social Studies last year”. When I went to a colleague’s classroom to observe her in action, I asked her, “when will the Social Studies lesson be coming?” She responded, “we’re done with Social Studies for the year.” It was October. Now that I am in administration, I have had principals say to me that so and so teacher is not growing kids very well so let’s put them in Social Studies where they can do less damage. As a gifted coordinator, my state has said they are not concerned with testing students for giftedness in Social Studies. The message the state and states all around the country seem to be giving is that Social Studies is not all that important. Because of this message, school systems are following suit.

hand holding diverse worldSome would argue that with the advent of google maps there is no need to teach geography anymore. With the 24-hour news channels focused on politics, why teach government any longer? That with the shrinking of the world, teaching culture is no longer a necessity. Our kids’ generation is more accepting of people who are different than any that preceded it.

My counter argument would be that the survival skills you want students, gifted or otherwise, to leave school with should be leadership, public speaking, collaboration, and research skills. All four of these skills can be taught in other classes, but are a perfect fit for Social Studies.

We have only ourselves to blame for the death of Social Studies. If we really wanted it to stick around, people would be fighting for it. Instead, when I pitched a series of workbooks involving projects to my publisher, I envisioned one on each of the four core subjects; math, language arts, science, and social studies. My publisher came back to me and said green light on the math, language arts, and science. No on the social studies. Their reasoning: social studies books do not sell as well. There is no demand. This, of course, was disappointing to me because if any subject area lends itself to projects, social studies is the perfect one. Not only that, you can make the learning authentic because Social Studies is about the real world. I am comforted by the fact that Social Studies will not go completely away. What will end up happening is it will be blended in with language arts. Those two naturally support one closeup of section of a dollar billanother so while the students are learning about the Constitution, they are focusing on the writing style and use of persuasive language as well. I suppose that is a more organic way to approach the subject anyway. Some have been using this humanities approach to language arts and social studies for a few decades.

What this means is that Social Studies-only teachers will become like those people at the grocery store who are still writing checks. You will stare in disbelief that someone still uses such a skill. There might be a couple Social Studies teachers tucked away at the high schools, teaching very social studies specific courses such as government and political science, but eventually, these will be phased out as well.

Then when I have my grandchild sitting on my lap, I will be able to tell her about the times when Social Studies was taught as a separate subject and how I spent two decades of my life teaching it. She will look at me as though I am spouting gobblygook, like when I tell her about a time before Internet or flying cars.

Further Reading
  1. Portage Daily Register – Social studies, science coursework reinstated in Portage elementary schools
  2. Cleveland Daily Banner – State board OKs new social studies guides
  3. Eagle Tribune – Teachers preparing for students’ questions about hate groups
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