Our schools don’t give enough attention to social studies. The social studies department at Emmaus High School has been cut by more than 10% over the last decade (from 22 teachers in 2009 to 19.5 today). And the district’s current remote learning plan has middle and high school students spending only one hour a week on social studies– 40-50% less than they are spending on math and language arts.
Yet social studies– which includes history, government, economics, sociology, psychology, and more– is the central place for teaching and learning critical thinking and sound judgment. And these are precisely the most important skills both our students and our community need right now. We live in a world of rapidly expanding disinformation, propaganda, conspiracy theories, hate-fueled ideologies, and ignorant opinions masquerading as facts. Social studies, with its emphasis on critical thinking and careful analysis, offers the most promise for combating these problems.
The consequences of a widespread lack of critical thinking skills is particularly direct and easy to see when it comes to the global pandemic we now face. The inability of millions of Americans to recognize propaganda, conspiracy theories, ideological blindness, and outright lies has already contributed significantly to both the number of deaths and the duration of the crisis. As Walter Lippman noted a generation ago, “there can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” In the shadow of COVID-19, we might add today that it isn’t just liberty that’s at stake.
I find no small amount of irony then that social studies– the very subject which holds the most promise for alleviating addressing these issues– continues to take a back seat to other subjects during this crisis.
And this is why I challenge the conventional wisdom that math and language arts should form the foundation of 21st century teaching. “The Three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) may have been enough in the 19th century, when universal public education first emerged in America. But today’s students need to do more than just dabble in other subjects if they are going to have any chance of navigating the increasingly complex world in which we now live. Social studies provides students critical thinking skills to analyze new information, synthesize different kinds of knowledge, understand facts, evaluate opinions, and reason with clarity, accuracy, precision, depth, breadth, and fairness. These things need to be at the core of the education experience we provide to our students, not the periphery.
PS: I could write much the same way about the place of science education in our schools. We don’t do enough, early enough. And– like social studies– the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the consequences of ignorance when it comes to the basic tenets of modern science.
PSS: A fun fact about Walter Lippman, quoted above– he coined the term ‘cold war’