Kelly is vice president of civics initiatives at theJack Miller Center.
Social studies is the subject most likely to provide explicit education for citizenship. And yet a recent white paper commissioned by Thinking Nation confirms what many involved with K-12 education already know: Social studies is widely neglected relative to reading and math.
“A Second-Class Subject?” shows that despite the high importance that middle and high school teachers and administrators attribute to social studies, the subject is simply not a priority when it comes to resources, curricular alignment or professional development.
Thinking Nation’s paper admirably identifies many of the reasons civics is neglected in schools today. But it misses out on the most important one. For too long, social studies education has been vague on what civics content is essential for students to know. It has neglected civics as tradition. The paper is an opportunity to remember our responsibility to help students enter into the great conversation around freedom, equality and justice that is our shared political tradition.
The problem with social studies today is not, of course, that knowledge is neglected altogether. The paper refers to “the skills and knowledge required to actively and productively participate as citizens in our democracy” and “the skills and knowledge required to engage in even the most basic functions of citizenship.” But what specifically that knowledge consists of, how it would move a student from apathy to civic-mindedness or why a school needs to teach these things — rather than say a family, church, employer or just Google — is not addressed.
Skills, on the other hand, are identified in detail. The report spells out certain historical thinking skills, it highlights the connection between social studies and literacy skills, it advocates for greater use of inquiry-based instruction. In this way, the paper reflects a misguided trend in social studies to favor skills over knowledge. The goal is to make social studies more relevant to a diversity of audiences with presumably different content interests, but the effect is often that social studies provides tools without reasons for their use.
So what essential knowledge can social studies offer, particularly when it comes to civic education? Most fundamentally students need to learn why — why our world looks the way that it does, why our society is organized in the way that it is, why we have inherited certain political institutions. As Columbia University professors Roosevelt Montas, Casey Blake and Tamara Tweel have written, “it is the responsibility of educators ... to introduce students to the history of ideas that have shaped our contemporary world.” Both higher ed and K-12 civics are charged with this task.
Civics across all levels should be an introduction to the ongoing conversation around the key texts and ideas that make up the American political tradition. Our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — are of course central, but familiarity with important thinkers who influenced the Founders as well as later generations of influential Americans who wrestled with the meaning of these documents is also essential. Students must see the contours of ongoing debates before they can meaningfully participate themselves.
This concept of civics as a tradition is perhaps foreign to many social studies educators. It may ring vaguely conservative to some. It should not. As Montas has written elsewhere: “The point of studying our political tradition is not to venerate it, but to allow ourselves the freedom of intelligent critique and of creative progress.” The point is to provide bones on which flesh (i.e. skills) can operate, and without which action is impossible.
The American political tradition belongs to all of us – left, right and center As Harvard professor Danielle Allen has written about the Declaration of Independence ,“the text built roads to action that changed worlds.” That is what participating in our political tradition makes possible for everyone on the political spectrum. Civics that eschews that tradition can only lead to stasis and apathy by failing to answer the “why.”
Thinking Nation has done us a service in providing data that highlights the disparity between how important educators and administrators say social studies is and the resources and support that social studies education receives. But until social studies embraces the study of American civics as a tradition, it will remain a second-class subject.