Academic journal article Social Education

Social Studies and the Social Order: Transmission or Transformation?

Academic journal article Social Education

Social Studies and the Social Order: Transmission or Transformation?

Article excerpt

"Research & Practice," established early in 2001. features educational research that is directly relevant to the work of classroom teachers. Here, I invited William Stanley to bring a historical perspective to the perennial question, "Should social studies teachers work to transmit the status quo or to transform it?"

Walter C Parker. "Research and Practice" Editor, University of Washington. Seattle.

Should social studies educators transmit or transform the social order? By "transform" I do not mean the common view that education should make society better (e.g., lead to scientific breakthroughs, eradicate disease, and increase productivity). Rather, I am referring to approaches to education that are critical of the dominant social order and motivated by a desire to ensure both political and economic democracy. This progressive or radical (depending on one's point of view) view of education for social transformation crystallized in the 1920s and '30s and remains a persistent school of thought. However, the impact of a focus on social transformation on educational policy and practice has been marginal.

Given our cultural commitment in the United States to individualism and free market theory, the limited impact of education for social transformation should not be surprising. Schooling has functioned, in general, to transmit the dominant social order, preserving the status quo, and it would be more plausible to argue that the current economic and political systems would need to undergo radical change before fundamental change in education could take place. Still, the question remains, What should be the role of teachers, especially social studies teachers, with respect to the social order--transmission or transformation?

The Quest for Democracy

Debates over education reform take place within a powerful historical and cultural context. In the United States, schooling is generally understood as an integral component of a democratic society. To the extent we are a democratic society, one could argue that education for social transformation could be anti-democratic, a view held by many conservatives. From the left side of the political spectrum, however, the view is that our nation is not now (nor ever was) a fully democratic society. In addition to a history of ethnic, racial, and gender discrimination, the gap between the wealthy and lower classes continues to increase; meanwhile, a significant percent of Americans still live in poverty. Most people have little or no influence on corporate or government institutions and policy, which are largely controlled by dominant groups who support a system that serves their own interests. If one accepts this line of thinking, education for social transformation becomes a moral imperative in the service of democracy.

But the either/or conception of education described above tends to oversimplify and distort. There is a more productive way of looking at this issue. Democratic societies have been rare throughout history, only expanding significantly over the last two centuries. Democratic thought and action (citizenship) must be learned, and schools are places where children receive formal training as citizens. Democracy is also a process or form of life rather than a fixed end in itself, and we should regard any democratic society as a work in progress. (1) Thus, democratic society is something we are always trying simultaneously to maintain and reconstruct, and education is essential to this process.

When one looks at the question of education for social transformation in the context of American history, three prevailing perspectives emerge. First, a strong form of education for social transformation was developed by George Counts in the 1930s and remains part of more recent work by various proponents of "critical pedagogy" and counter-socialization. (2) A second, and frequently misunderstood, perspective is found in John Dewey's curriculum theory, which rejected Counts's core argument. …

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