Democracy Denied: Learning to Teach History in Elementary School

Article excerpt


Although No Child Left Behind (NCLB) appears to disregard the teaching of social studies, it should not be assumed that teaching and learning in these content areas is of little importance. Prior to NCLB, discussions over social studies and history standards dominated the political and cultural landscapes. The eventual conclusion from the federal government was that the social studies devalued American history (Gibson, 1998; Vinson, 1999).

However, the sharp distinctions between those who advocate citizenship education as patriotism indoctrination (Leming, Ellington, & Porter-Magee, 2003; Hirsch, 1987; Ravitch, 1987; Saxe, 2003) and others who see the possibilities a critical approach to teaching history and social studies has for genuine democratic education (Hursh & Seneway, 1998; Ross, 1998; Segall, 1999; Wade, 1999) still exist.

This article documents how one elementary preservice teacher (Amy) learned to teach history from a patriotic indoctrination approach and how powerful and appealing this approach was, considering Amy's limited knowledge of American history. Also, this article demonstrates how this approach essentially denied Amy any opportunity to learn about the richness of social studies content and the possibilities it provides for genuine democratic discourse. The outcome is a narrative portrait of one preservice teacher and a cautious analysis of what the outcomes might mean for teacher education researchers concerned with the future of social studies and its commitment to citizenship education. The findings also suggest that we need a deeper understanding of what really goes on in undergraduate social studies methods courses (Slekar, 2006).

Social Studies Methods Courses and History Teaching

The social studies methods course is typically a standard requirement for preservice teachers in elementary certification programs. Pedagogical understanding of the social studies is a foundational goal of this course (Adler, 1991). However, it is not unusual for social studies methods professors to encounter preservice teachers with a rather negative view of the social studies, history in particular (Slekar, 1998). This early apprehension on the preservice teacher's part presents a rather challenging situation. How can a methods course intellectually influence a preservice teacher to consider teaching history as a form of citizenship education to elementary children?

Todd Dinkelman (1999) found that it was possible to encourage critical reflection (central to democratic ideals) in a social studies methods course, but was a bit cautious because of the effort required by the methods professor to guide quality reflection. In addition, Segall (1999) recommends, that, "history/social studies educators must create a pedagogical environment in which the very foundations of history ... are called into question ..." (p.371). However, how often does critical reflection and the dismantling of status quo history actually occur in social studies methods courses? Not very often according to Marciano (2001), "Influential educators faithfully support a dominant-elite view [of history] that has fostered an uncritical patriotism ... undermining thoughtful and active citizenship in a democracy" (p.537).

Therefore, in what follows, I provide of vivid picture of what happens when the "ignorant activist" (Leming, Ellington, & Porter-Magee, 2003) is absent and how traditional patriotic history is seen as powerful (usually seen as boring) from a naive preservice teacher's point of view.

Research Methodology

The following research is drawn from a study that was conducted over the course of an entire year. I use a case study methodology (Stake, 1998) in an attempt to generate a narrative account of a preservice teacher learning to teach traditional American history. The use of more naturalistic inquiry is sometimes more conducive to narrative renderings as pointed out by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and supported by Cornett (1990) and Knowles (1992). …