Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Social Studies, Citizenship Education, and the Search for an American Identity: An Argument against a Unifying Narrative

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Social Studies, Citizenship Education, and the Search for an American Identity: An Argument against a Unifying Narrative

Article excerpt

One of the more haunting images from George Orwell's (1949) 1984 is that of the protagonist, Winston Smith, altering official government history on behalf of the Party as part of his responsibilities at the Ministry of Truth. Orwell viewed the mandating of a singular, unquestionable historical record detestable enough to include within a cautionary tale of unabated totalitarianism, yet students in public schools across the United States are continually being exposed to a singular national narrative within their social studies classrooms. This narrative does not necessarily come from a formal plan of indoctrination, but from tradition and the belief that schools have a responsibility to promote a unified message of what it means to be an American citizen.

Political scientists have long associated educational attainment with increased democratic participation, namely acts of voting and social capital (Nie, Junn, & Stehlik-Barry, 1996; Putnam, 2000; Tenn, 2005), prompting Galston (2001) to assert that "all education is civic education" (p. 219). Despite such claims, social studies educators often assume responsibility for the development of civic skills and dispositions, and research suggests that the more exposure students have with social studies curricula the more likely they are to develop traits of responsible citizens (Nie & Hillygus, 2001). However, few studies have attempted to discern the link between social studies education and students' conceptions of themselves as American citizens.

For the majority of students in the United States, their primary instruction on "what it means to be an American" emanates from the traditional narrative of American history and democracy that is presented in the classroom. In this sense, schools are aiding in the construction of what Bourdieu (1977/2008) describes as habitus, or "a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions" (p. 438; emphasis in original). Bourdieu further explains this notion of habitus as "the product of the work of inculcation and appropriation necessary in order for those products of collective history, the objective structures to succeed in reproducing themselves more or less completely, in the form of durable dispositions" (p. 440). In other words, the traditional canon acts as a unifying force that institutes a common way of viewing the world. Schools, central to Dewey's (1916) conception of society as a "mode of associated living" (p. 87), play an integral role in perpetuating this ethos to future generations. These lessons, along with influences from family and popular culture, create both a collective memory and American identity (Wineburg et al., 2007).

Yet, is the traditional American narrative the most appropriate means by which to develop a true sense of American history and citizenship? Viewing citizenship as a type of social space in which "knowledge, meanings, and identities are discursively shaped" (Pinson, 2007, p. 354), I argue that a more representative ethos is that of multiple narratives, which highlight the pluralistic nature of American history and society. It is my contention that competing narratives actually have the potential to act as greater unifying agents than assimilating behind one agreed upon version of American history and society. In this article, I first look at the current state of citizenship education in the United States before presenting an argument for diverse classroom instruction that treats American history and citizenship as fluid ideas rather than as a fixed national narrative.

The Current State of Citizenship Education in the United States

At a recent meeting of the National Council for Social Studies, a prominent scholar, acting as a discussant for papers on state standards, described citizenship education as a "sinkhole" that continues to engulf social studies educators. …

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