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Can Social Studies Deliver Us from Insanity?

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I supported sanity this weekend, notwithstanding the zombies for education reform that I photographed traipsing next to a set of green portable toilets. Jon Stewart's rally on Halloween eve was a novel and humorous civic experience. To be honest, I really wasn't there for what happened onstage, even though I'm a fan of The Daily Show. I was there for the crowd and all the signage that I expected. In many cases, my expectations for political witticisms and double entendre were exceeded. Although, I have to admit my favorite was some guy, probably in his early twenties, carrying around one of those neon furniture sale signs you see strewn about at major intersections.

As a social studies educator, I was happy to see so many invigorated by a political cause, even though the celebrity hosts of the event claimed the rally was thoroughly apolitical. I gathered from all the hoopla before the rally that it was a necessary attempt to diminish the myth, misconception, and ignorance playing into the culture of fear in which we find ourselves as a country and a democracy. I found myself wondering if the throngs of people will vote.

So much of this contentious mid-term election season has been devoted to thwarting ignorance of the true nature of the problems before us. This is not to advocate for any version of truth regarding the stimulus package or the health care bill, for example. Yet, it appears as if there has been no shortage of charlatans who exploit uncertainty only to fill the gaps in our knowledge with unfounded and ridiculous ideas. I suppose this is where education enters the conversation.

But education and schooling are not going to save us from this one, at least not for now. At no point in any of the education reform debate have I heard much about civic education or anything related to participation in our national democratic dialogue. Sure, I get it: not much to do if children cannot read, write, or do math, the so-called essentials for an educated person. Is there not room for anything else? According to the standardized testing agenda over the last decade, it's clear there is not. I can see a new STEM obsession coming down the pike, all in the name of American economic competitiveness, but nothing about a renewal of the social studies.

One would think that the most potent weapon possessed by this administration against ignorance is to constantly and effectively educate the electorate about what it's doing; however, a great deal of the responsibility rests with us. No matter how charismatic the message or ornate the oratory, we cannot understand what is happening to us, nor can we ensure it is happening with us, if we do not possess the skills or dispositions to think critically about issues, or even maintain the most rudimentary understanding of how government operates. It is unlikely that K-12 students in this country will acquire the fundamental knowledge about our democratic society from the pithy passages they find in their reading comprehension tests.

It is true that secondary education is replete with varied American history and government classes, but many of these are content heavy. Educators need to foster fundamental democratic skills like deliberation, debate, consensus building, geographic awareness, and civic participation in addition to all the facts, dates, places, and names. The elementary school is a great place to commence early development of broad democratic dispositions. Perhaps then they'll enter the political sphere as adults without shouting people down or stomping on their heads.

Under the current ethos of reform, this is not going to happen. Instead, economic competitiveness and the specter of universal proficiency on standardized tests rule the day. I can hear reformers asking, "What's the use of preparing young people for life in our democratic society if our way of life is constantly threatened by our inability to crank out enough engineers and scientists?" The tenor of reform continuously emphasizes reading, math, and now STEM content at the expense of a number of other educational priorities. Given this education, students may become very rational and erudite test-takers. But will they be able to work together, debate important issues, or question what they read?

I'm sure there are innovative pockets throughout the country that continue to teach social studies and civic participation. In my experiences over the last 10 years in public schools, however, social studies education continues its decline. Whether prominent education reformers will admit it or not, a significant bout of curriculum narrowing is occurring in public schools. Teaching for and about democracy is typically dismissed altogether. If it is taught, it's crammed uncomfortably at the end of a long school day 20 minutes before dismissal. Or, it's part of a rotational curriculum, taught in a six-week sequence along with natural science, health, or some other second-class subject.

I do not suggest that we simply add social studies to the already overwhelming list of priorities in education. Like social studies, each discipline has its own advocates and professional organizations. If educators and reformers gave in to the whims of education's version of "identity politics," then social studies would splinter into distinct subjects and taught separately, such as history, economics, or geography. Part of the strength social studies maintains is the integrative nature of its content and methods. Nevertheless, what I am asking for is a reassessment of the primacy within public schooling of preparing young people for their civic responsibilities and the knowledge of how our system of governance operates.

There is an abundance of attention on low-income or at-risk populations and the quality of their education. These students and their communities, mainly clustered in urban areas, often lack the political clout to effect change. If education is empowering in terms of content knowledge and college preparedness, then another source of authority could come from a sophisticated understanding of how our democracy. Groups typically marginalized by politics might be gifted with the will and command to take leadership roles. At the very least, appreciating the role of social studies within our education system, more than STEM content, could stem the tide of ignorance and frightened political malaise plaguing our nation. It's evident from the Stewart rally that we are a country of aspiring comedians and witty sign-makers. Yet, it is unfortunate that we have to appeal to sanity and rationality in our political discourse. Through social studies education, it may be possible for us to prepare young people for a renewed democratic dialogue before cynicism and apathy, or by chance anger, take over.