The Ambivalent Role of Social Studies and History Education: An Historical Overview

By Beddow, Maggie | Social Studies Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Ambivalent Role of Social Studies and History Education: An Historical Overview


Beddow, Maggie, Social Studies Review


The ambivalent role of social studies in relation to history education has been pervasive for decades and remains so today. As far back as 1913, educational theorists Thomas Jesse Jones and David Snedden of Teachers College published a report about an emerging progressive field called "social studies" which resulted in a new way of thinking about history and its role and status in education. The collective influence of progressive educators such as John Dewey, Williams Kilpatrick, and Harold Rugg helped shape the goals of social studies which were to promote good citizenship and historical studies as a way to create new order and social change (Ravitch & Finn, 1987).

In the 1920s and 1930s elementary schools across the nation began to replace chronological history curriculum with the study of expanding environments that incorporated the home, neighborhood, and community, and me inclusion of civics education and service learning. These themes were considered by progressives more relevant to the needs of students as they would engage them in meaningful studies about their own lives and ways to participate in the democratic, pluralistic processes of society. Progressives felt that the transmission model of teaching social studies was indoctrination of a particular ideology; hence, they promoted constructivist self-directed classrooms where students would be encouraged to create their own meaning and interpretation of historical events (Leming et al., 2003). Students were to be taught higher order critical thinking skills that would facilitate analytical thinking about the accuracy of historical events and how they were portrayed in textbooks. Moreover, through social studies education, more emphasis was to be given to the infusion of global and multicultural education that focused on issues related to culture, race, class, and gender (Seixas, 2001).

During the curriculum reform movement of the 1960s, Jerome Bruner published The Process of Education, which served as the basis for a new curriculum program that, for some, was contentious in nature. This program, entitled Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), was designed to provide students with authentic experiences and activities that would facilitate them to make sense of concepts in social studies and science through constructivist processes. However, some of its critics felt it was insensitive to the nature of study of human beings from certain cultures (Leming et al., 2003). By this time anthropology and other subjects including history, geography, economics, and civics had been incorporated into the discipline of social studies. These progressive developments began to cause unrest amongst traditional historians who were becoming reticent to acknowledge social studies as a true academic discipline. As a result, a public controversial debate on the purpose of social studies education versus history education ensued in the late 1980s and 1990s, inspiring a renewed attention to social studies scholarship (Leming et al., 2003; Seixas, 2001; Wilson, 2001; Wineburg, 2001). In response to complaints about the vagueness of social studies, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) adopted a definition for K- 12 social studies education in 1 992 as a way to dispel misconceptions about its meaning. This definition, which is still accepted today, clarified the major purpose of social studies as the promotion of civic competence, or the knowledge , skills , and attitudes needed by students to become active participants in a democratic society. Specifically, the NCSS Executive Summary (1992) defines social studies as

. . .the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. …

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