Social Studies

Social studies by definition is the examination of human society and is an academic discipline by practice.  It can be interrelated to anthropology, economics, archaeology, history, religion, philosophy, psychology and even the natural sciences. Social studies is pedagogical as well being taught in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Young children are taught both history and geography in separate classes. Like any academic discipline there are controversies, debates, and disputes. The way social studies is taught has changed over the past century. The reason history was taught was to make loyal and obedient citizens to a nation state. However, as time passed the goals became less about control,but more so producing a quality education. Globalization contributed to this change considering the world is becoming smaller. An individual if they are to function in a rapidly changing society needs to know more than just their nations history. They must have a grasp of the world. Social studies may have to be drastically altered to best remain relevant in the 21st century.

          Social studies has its roots based in the Progressive movement in the United States. It emphasized the actual process of learning and the focus on the individual student. The Progressive Movement  was attempting to challenge subject centered curricula. During this period of the early 20th century history, geography, and civics were taught as discrete subject areas. The change in education was occurring during a time of political transformation in the United States. America was seeing a new wave of immigration from Europe and the new curriculum in US public schools was designed to mold them into citizens. There were xenophobic and racist overtones to this. It was a way for immigrants to completely repudiate their heritage and embrace “the American way.” These changes were also happening under a segregated public school system in which African Americans did not receive equal funding and resources. The hyphenated American was to be erased into a melting pot, but this did not include non-whites. African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latin Americans were still excluded from American society. The National Council for the Social Studies primary mission was to promote citizenship, not genuine academic inquiry. The organization began in 1921 with an agenda to have both social scientists and social studies teacher collaborate. John Dewy had a major impact on this shift and the Progressive movement. He was a philosopher, educational reformer, and psychologist. Dewey proposed an interdisciplinary approach to social studies. The 1916 report by the US Office of Education known as Social Studies in Secondary Education  also began suggesting reform in the way it was taught. Dewy like many other progressives believed in social reform in all areas of life, more government regulation, and had an extreme patriotic zeal. They were not however progressive on race relations or women’s rights.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

   This reform to social studies did not include African American history , Asian American history, or the history of Latino Americans.  Women have been for a longtime written out or completely ignored in history. Although the Progressive movement did cause a change, it must be understood that they were not progressive radicals.  

           There were improvements that had to be made to social studies. Scholars such as Carter G. Woodson,  W.E.B Dubois, John Hope Franklin Jr,   and John Henrik Clarke  contributed an immense amount of knowledge to African American history and the history of the United States as a whole.  What was taught in public schools in the US about non-whites was usually negative or dismissive. A majority of textbooks would talk solely about slavery and at times try to present it as not being brutal. There was never any mentioned of the empires of Ghana, Mali, or Songhai. There was limited praise or mention of the Harlem Hell Fighters, the African Americans who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the American Civil War, or the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. African Americans had been contributors to US arts, sciences, and culture for three centuries. Only with the Civil Rights movement did African American studies emerge in US universities. This also inspired women in academia to push for women’s studies and history programs. This was an important not only because it was challenging racist and sexist convictions in academia, but the great man history concept. Too often when people think of history they think solely of impressive leaders, facts, and dates. History is more than just the recording of facts or the process of archiving artifacts. It is the analysis of multiple perspectives and their relevance. It is critical to understand how common people lived, rather than just focusing on their leaders. The common person is the one who keeps the society functioning. A combination of experiences can explain the spirit and attitudes of a particular era.

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)

  The revolution that occurred in US universities did transform the way social studies were taught in both the elementary school to high school level. Other ethnic groups were not regulated to an isolated corner and women were made visible in the historical record.

           Social studies is taught differently depending in what nation you live. The United States experiment with other models of teaching social studies in the 1940s. Paul Hanna suggested a thematic approach to social studies. The method was student at center, which they would spread their new found knowledge with family, the wider community, and the world. There is a strong emphasis on content in Hanna’s model. It was used more so during the mid-20th century. The emphasis on focused content still continues in US schools, but the thematic convictions are discarded. The idea of core knowledge evolved stating there should be information that every US citizen should know. This concept was promoted by Eric Hirsch. Students would be introduced to various aspects of history, culture, geography, and literature. This model has its flaws because it teaches history from a US world view ( or emphasizes Europe over other world civilizations) and has a mission to promote democratic ideology. One ideology should not be promoted in education. There should be exposure to numerous ideologies to fully grasp political thought. Part of the problem of political science when taught in the US is that it does not expose students to other systems of governance. The US government does not represent the whole political thought of every system on Earth. This method wants to gain a larger perspective on human experience, but fails due to its insistence on one world view. Social studies varies in other nations. An interdisciplinary model combines both humanities and social sciences. Canada and the US are the few nations that use this model. Other nations such as Ghana, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong,  Czech Republic, and UK social studies is used more so as an organizing term. It can be extended beyond school faculties and refer to professional interest groups. These nations of both the West and Global South tend to teach students social studies as separate disciplines. Saudi Arabia, Russia, France, the UK, and Indonesia put more focus on geography and history for entrance examinations to universities. High school exit examinations also focus more so on history and geography. Although  Japan and China have experimented with the integrated approach, the majority of schools still follow the separate discipline model. It appears models and paradigms have there positive and negative attributes.

        Social studies has caused debate. The main problem is whether the discipline is promoting indoctrination rather than genuine academic development. Racism and prejudice of various sorts reappear in school systems. The West tends to teach that history revolves around Europe or the areas it colonized in which the majority indigenous populations were wiped out and replaced by invaders ( US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand).  Ethnic studies and multicultural education wants to reverse a Eurocentric and white supremacist  view of history to include  the study of African, Asian, and Latin American civilization. It has been common practice to focus solely on Europe, when Europe does not represent the entire world. There were attempts to challenge this with the “Man : A Course of Study.” The curriculum wanted to inspire interest in the study of history  and science. The new curriculum was developed by a National Science Foundation grant in the 1960s. There was a conservative backlash, which charged the curriculum was undermining democracy and promoted cultural relativism. The “Back to the Basics Movement”  formed eventually defeating reform challenging  a Eurocentric view of world history taught in public schools. The battle continued in the 1990s with National Center for History published The National Standards for World History : Exploring Paths to the Present. There were arguments that standards are too intensive and it did not promote a common bound in US citizenship. When this debate arose it was a time of conservative backlash in politics and a Republican majority in the senate in 1994. The culture wars as they became known had extended not only in politics, but education. The teaching of intelligent design, overemphasis on American patriotism, and an America first social studies agenda were sources of contention. Currently, these issues are still being challenged. It ultimately harms students who get a low quality education. At the university level it could be a hindrance  if a student has not mastered critical thinking skills. Students do not need indoctrination in American values and patriotism. Knowledge, analytical skills , and deciphering information are what should be conveyed in a social studies program. As the 21st century advances these skills are required to function in a modern globalized society.


Williamson, Rana K. American History. Bath, England: Parragon, 2002.

Adler, Susan. “Social Studies Education – OVERVIEW, PREPARATION OF TEACHERS.” – National, Curriculum, Content, and Teaching. State University, 6 June 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2016. <;.


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