"Research & Practice," established early in 2001, features educational research that is directly relevant to the work of classroom teachers. Here, I invited Ron Evans to provide an historical perspective on the controversy that once again swirls around the social studies curriculum.
--Walter C. Parker, "Research and Practice" Editor, University of Washington, Seattle.
In his foreword to Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?, published in 2003, Chester Finn blames the "deterioration of social studies in U.S. schools" on the "lunatics" who have "taken over the asylum," and who are imparting "ridiculously little knowledge" to students. He lauds the volume's intent to explain "where and how and why social studies went awry." (1) The book has sparked a controversy over the current state of the social studies curriculum.
But is controversy over social studies new, and does it matter to those engaged in the day-to-day work of teaching in this subject area? My aims in this article are, first, to capture the main camps and patterns of the "social studies wars" since the beginning of the twentieth century and, second, to describe critical episodes from that long history that will help put the contemporary controversies in historical perspective. I'll conclude by drawing three "lessons" that social studies teachers today might consider from this history of curriculum disagreement in social studies.
Pendulum swings are a regular feature of the curriculum landscape, and the primary pattern has been this: toward traditional and discipline-based curricula during conservative times; toward experimentation, child-centered and inquiry or issues-oriented curricula during liberal times. If you don't like the current direction of curricular reform, take heart, it may not last.
Despite ever-changing curricular fashions and trends, a set of competing interest groups is a relatively constant feature of the social studies arena. There are five major competing camps, as I described in a recent book, The Social Studies Wars, struggling at different times either to retain control of social studies or to influence its direction. (2) The first, traditional historians, supports history as the core of social studies and emphasizes content acquisition, chronology, and the textbook as the backbone of the course. This camp defined its approach in the 1890s and has experienced a revival in recent years. A second camp advocates social studies as social science and includes those who want a larger place for teaching of the social science disciplines in schools and those who support a structure-of-the-disciplines approach, which was at the heart of the 1960s new social studies movement. A third group, social efficiency educators, hopes to create a smoothly controlled and more efficient society by applying standardized techniques from business and industry to schooling. Most often, they have envisioned a scientifically constructed, more directly functional curriculum aimed at preparing students for various life roles. A fourth group is composed of social meliorists. These are Deweyan experimentalists who want to develop students' reflective thinking ability and, thereby, contribute to social improvement. These theorists advocate a reflective or issues-centered curriculum and often emphasize curricular attention to...