“Mr. Spencer, what do you think the most important subject is?” a student asks as we transition from math to writing.
“Most people think I’m crazy for saying this, but I’d have to go with social studies,” I respond.
“I thought you’d say philosophy,” a girl points out.
“Yeah, but I have to sneak that one into school,” I say.
“No you don’t. It’s all over social studies. History is just philosophy with story.”
* * *
Two years ago, we studied globalization. Students interviewed community members, family, police officers, civil servants and business owners in order to get the story of Maryvale and how it had changed as a result of globalization. From there, they began a documentary, a series of service projects and finally a proposal for how this urban enclave should redefine itself in light of a globalized world.
It was philosophy.
It was story.
It was human.
Did students read? Constantly. Did they write? More than I could have imagined. Did they do math? Take a look at their community needs assessments and you’ll see how in-depth they went in their statistical analyses. Realizing the potential for new learning, I asked if I could redesign my intervention class to be a History Day exploratory project. The teachers in leadership quickly dismissed this as “fluff” and “fun” and “unable to help us increase test scores.”
* * *
Perhaps this is a symptom of urban education, but I have a hunch it’s true throughout the U.S. that we are experiencing the death of social studies. In the primary grades, classes gloss over it briefly in order to move to the “tested subjects” while secondary schools treat it as a subject used to help boost reading and writing scores. When power brokers and political pundits grow glassy-eyed of STEM, they are quick to ignore AHEM (Art, History, Economics, Music) and thus social studies experiences a distinct silent treatment.
It’s viewed as the past. A slightly embarrassing vestige to the days when people wore wigs and tight pants. People miss the human element, the problem-solving skills, the critical thinking and the creativity of the subject. So, here is a list of why social studies matters.
- Interconnectedness: Social studies allows for students to connect subjects, ideas, concepts and content from multiple sources. Thus, while a reading class might spend three weeks on expository text, a decent social studies class hits expository, persuasive, narrative and functional text while mixing it with alternative media in multiple social contexts.
- Creativity: While creativity can happen in any subject, social studies provides a certain flexibility that is not always possible in subjects with more rigid procedural demands. Thus, students can do a PBL (redefine the city), a multimedia play or documentary without going against the standards or curriculum map.
- Story and Systems: It’s fun to teach a subject where I can teach economic systems, social norms or financial literacy while still providing the perspective of a human narrative. I get to blend micro and macro history and help students see how they intersect.
- Relevance: On a regular basis, we get to be practical (here’s how you balance a budget), personal (tell your story, share your beliefs) and philosophical (what are the ideas that shape your world) without being too explicit or preachy.
- Critical Thinking: I teach all subjects and it’s painful at the beginning of the year to watch students in math who are scared to ask questions or solve an equation the “wrong way.” In much of school, students are forced to answer questions. In social studies, they get to question the answers.
- Civic Duty and Civil Rights: We are raising a generation of students who are civically illiterate. They don’t know their rights. They don’t know their world.
- Understand the Past Narratives: Students can make sense of current events and how those events shape their life by delving deeper into the events of the past. I watch worldviews widen when they access the collective voice of generations before them. They learn to value the vintage and find relevance in the classic.
- Better in the Core Curriculum: Social studies is often the place where students “practice” reading, writing and math in contexts that are closely linked to the way the world actually works.
- Ethics: Students have a chance to think ethically in a way that is not dogmatic. It’s a subject where mystery and paradox are not forbidden and where moral requires debate, discussion and deliberation.
- Recovering Geography: Students get a chance to make sense of their world, both in a global and local context. They get a sense of how the land, the people and the culture have shaped them in addition to learning what it means to interact with people in other lands, cultures and nations. Thus, when they do a “flat classroom” project they recognize the forces at work both in the positive (a chance for understanding) and in the negative (the dangers of technophilia and neo-imperialism).
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at johntspencer.com. He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.