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As I begin the 2012-2013 school year, I pause to take a moment and reflect on the purpose and value of my profession.

If you’ve visited with a social studies teacher recently, you have probably heard that our discipline has been relegated to the sideline over the course of the past decade.  Most educators will agree that the demands of No Child Left Behind forced schools to narrow the curriculum to focus on the “tested” subjects of Math, Reading and Science.  Arne Duncan echoed the concerns of many Social Studies educators when he said, “to marginalize social studies for the sake of reading and math is not only misguided, it is educational neglect. Educators and policymakers need to recognize that social studies is a core subject, critical to sustaining an informed democracy.”  While NCLB and the policies of the Department of Education have indeed been a thorn in the side of many social studies teachers, they are simply a symptom of a much larger problem that continues to corrode the value of our discipline.

The Underlying Problem

Ken Robinson, of TED Talk fame, described the underlying problem in a lecture he delivered to the Royal Society of the Arts in June of 2008.

“We have grown up in a system of public education that is dominated by the conception of economic utility.  This is implicit in the structure of school curriculum.  There is in every school a hierarchy of subjects. Why is it that Math and Science are deemed more important than Arts and Drama?  There is an economic judgement that is made in the structure of school curriculum.  So, effectively, our school curricula is based on two sorts of subject; useful ones and useless ones.”

We err when we think that the essential purpose of a public school is economic in nature (i.e. to prepare students to join the workforce).  This approach is flawed and outdated.  It may have served us well in the 19th and 20th centuries as our economy operated on an industrial model.  Establishing a hierarchy of disciplines and a sorting of subjects into “useful” and “useless” was modeled on the interests and served the purposes of industrialism.  However, as we enter a time period of exponential change, it is a lost cause to make accurate predictions about the future workplace and professional opportunities awaiting today’s learners.  How can we prepare students for a 21st century workplace when we can’t predict what the economy will look like at the end of next week?  As the U.S. Department of Labor has reported, today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs by the time they are 38 years old. In short, the “economic utility” model of public education needs to be called what it actually is = futile.

The Importance of Civic Education

It seems that in the wake of No Child Left Behind, our society has forgotten that our task as educators was always civic in nature. We are not in the business of preparing workers, we are in the business of preparing citizens who will enter a changing world.  It is imperative and prudent that we recognize and promote this approach.  As Ken Robinson has stated, “…there are unprecedented circumstances existing in today’s world.  An unprecedented population is putting an unprecedented drain on the earth’s resources and an unprecedented demand for innovation.”

The problems of tomorrow (climate change, immigration, health care, the economy, etc.) will indeed require innovative and creative thinking.  If we are to embrace the exponential change occurring in our society and prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet, then civic education must become a major part of the solution and obtain the respect it deserves.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has recognized the importance of civic education.  In their “Framework for 21st Century Learning” they have identified the core subjects that promote readiness for a changing world: Language Arts, World Languages, Arts, Mathematics, Economics, Science, Geography, History, Government and Civics.  Within this framework, the Social Studies play a central role in promoting global awareness, economic literacy, civic literacy and environmental literacy; all themes of 21st century learning.

The chief enemy of global awareness, civic literacy and many of the other 21st century skills is narcissism.  At it’s core, the social studies has always been designed to be the antidote to narcissism.  Each subject within the discipline asks students to look beyond themselves and consider a variety of perspectives.  In Geography, we stress that we are not alone on this Earth.  Our choices and decisions have huge ramifications on the other 7 billion people sharing this planet with us.  In history, we emphasize that a man without history is like a tree without roots.  As Elie Wiesel said, “learning history forces students to accept the postulate that life did not begin at our birth.  Others have been here before us, and we walk in their footsteps.  The books we have read were composed by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples.  We are the sum total of their experiences and quests.”

The Changing Nature of Social Studies

For too long, the Social Studies discipline was plagued by a perceived pedagogy that focused solely on memorization and factual recall (see any episode of Jaywalking, Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance on SNL or Ben Stein’s history lesson in Ferris Bueler’s Day Off). Despite these antiquated approaches to instruction, the Social Studies discipline has undergone radical transformations over the past generation.  More and more educators are beginning to ditch the old pedagogies that dominated the teaching of social studies.

As much as Jeb Bush might like it be, history is much more than a series of facts to be memorized.  The Stanford History Education Group and the College Board have led the way in transforming history education into a discipline that concentrates on historical thinking skills (sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating and using evidence to support an argument).  If current trends continue, more information will be produced this year than in the previous 5,000 years.  It has been estimated that the amount of digital information in the world will increase 44x between now and 2020. In the “age of information” the ability to analyze evidence, sources and arguments may be one of the most important 21st century skills.

Geography alliances throughout the country have pushed for a reconceptualization of their subject in recent years.  The days of students doing nothing more than coloring maps and regurgitating information on map tests are slowly becoming extinct. Take a look at the AP Human Geography curriculum to see that more emphasis has been placed on the study of population patterns, agricultural and industrial trends, land use models and GIS technology.  Right now, many states do not require a stand-alone geography course at the 9-12 level.  In the post-9/11 world, global awareness and cultural literacy have never been more important.

One need look no further than our dismal electoral participation rates and the current economic crisis to realize the importance and relevance of Economics and Government/Civics.  Thomas Jefferson may have hit the nail on the head when he said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Is There Data to Support These Assertions?

I realize that most of the argument I have advanced so far is supported by evidence that is broad or anecdotal in nature and relies on the use of “glittering generalities.”  Let me transition and attempt to make an argument for the centrality of Social Studies that appeals to the readers who are more influenced by scientific research and hard evidence/data.

In 2002, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln released a pessimistic report that said that people do not really yearn for more meaningful involvement in governance and that a vast majority of Americans purposely avoid political participation.  Their research uncovered a damaging paradox of our culture: while it may seem that we like conflict and controversy based upon our obsession with reality television and competitive sports, we mostly dislike contentious political and governmental disputes.  One solution proposed by the researchers was to revamp public education to place more emphasis on democratic participation and a reasoned discussion of controversial public issues.  Patricia Avery, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has proven that this approach can have a significant impact on civic engagement.

More recently, in 2010, the research firm CIRCLE attempted to determine why there was such a difference in the civic health of Miami, FL (the least civically engaged city in the country) and Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN (the most civically engaged city in the country). What they found in their “Tale of Two Cities Report” was that individuals in the lowest income bracket in the Twin Cities were more likely to volunteer, attend public meetings, work with neighbors, participate in politics outside of elections and participate in associations than people in the wealthiest tier in Miami. An individual with a high school education in Minneapolis-St. Paul was about as likely to be engaged as an individual with a college education in Miami.  In taking a look at the differentiating factors that contribute to the culture of civic empowerment, researchers mentioned that one of the key factors was that “Education in Minnesota appears to be more ‘civic.’ Schools in the Twin Cities do a better job teaching civic knowledge and connecting other civic learning experiences in communities.”  In other words, when a community promotes and values civic education, it increases civic empowerment and quality of life.

So then, how do we best educate our children to take their place in the changing world?  If we continue to focus on economic utility and preparing students for the world of work, we miss out on a higher calling and a more meaningful approach to education.  Let us embrace the Humanities and Liberal Arts and return them to their rightful place, at the center of public education.

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