Pop quiz: Which description best fits Thomas Jefferson?
A. Founding Father; third president of the United States elected
in 1800; and author of the Declaration of Independence, adopted in
B. Statesman, author, inventor, architect, but also slaveholder
and member of the landowning elite.
The answer depends on whom you are asking.
History students are more likely to answer A. Social studies
students would gravitate toward B.
The hypothetical test question illustrates two approaches that
are fighting for prominence in schools around the country.
Traditional history classes would pay more attention to Jefferson's
leadership, carefully placed within a framework of dates. Social
studies classes, however, are more likely to study Jefferson as a
multifaceted individual, with his position of wealth and privilege
coming under the microscope.
At the core lie two distinct views of education. History
advocates insist on a return to traditional instruction, while
opponents assert that students need context. What the argument hides
is a basic agreement that schools need to do a better job of
teaching history. But neither side seems prepared to listen to the
In recent years, the issue has taken on added urgency.
Standardized testing in math and English has forced many school
districts to spend less time and money on both history and social
studies. Research grants are dwindling. Recent reports on the lack
of knowledge of history and civics among US students have grabbed
But if concerns have heightened about the quality of social
studies and history instruction, the debate about what should be
taught and how is hardly new.
Once upon a time, history was a staple in US public school
curricula. But social studies became popular starting in the 1960s,
inspired by the work of Charles Beard, an early 20th-century social
reformer and Columbia University professor.
Social studies was supposed to remedy rote learning by
encouraging an interdisciplinary approach. After all, Professor
Beard pointed out, history didn't occur in a vacuum. The varied
perspectives of economics, geography, sociology, anthropology, and
current events would add meaning and relevance to history, or so the
In many schools, social studies were adopted for younger grades,
seen as a softer study, preparing preteens for the more rigorous
study of history in high school.
But in the view of some, a certain fuzziness crept into the field
with the social studies approach and has been corrupting history
classes ever since.
History advocates sputter at the mention of social studies, a
field they see as too touchy-feely and lacking in rigor. But those
who favor social studies blanch at what they see as an attempt to
drive history back into the territory of rote learning.
But arguments about rigor or the lack thereof sometimes conceal
another, deeper disagreement. It's an ancient conundrum: whether the
purpose of education is to transmit the culture or transform it.
Traditional history advocates say that learning history should
enable one to join the culture, to participate as a citizen. A more
liberal view deems the teaching of history a stepping- stone to
Lately, the rhetoric has grown hostile. Social studies teachers
"have contempt for history," says Will Fitzhugh, who directs the
National History Club.
"More than half of them didn't take history to begin with," he
says. "The old joke that social studies is taught by athletic
coaches is still sadly true in many places."
Stephen Thornton, a professor of social studies and education at
Columbia University's Teachers College, says the attack on his
profession is unfounded. "What do they think we're teaching if it's
not history? The problem is that they want a particular kind of
history - their version. …