I have been pondering for the past week or so this social studies curriculum--what should we be teaching our children. At the same time I have been working my way through the second chapter of John Dewey's Democracy and Education....in my estimation a monumental work. But it is difficult, not that I don't understand it but rather I read a paragraph and then have to think of the ramifications that that paragraph suggests. There is no question that John saw schools and schooling at a mandatory requirement of society. Without schools our civilization would slowly take a turn for the worst.
I had also forgotten from my last reading of this tome that Dewey was probably an instigator of the field of sociology, that is, the study of humans within society or a group. Charles H. Cooley who I consider one of the founders of sociology in the United States was with John Dewey at the University of Michigan. I suspect they had some interesting discussions over coffee. I like the field of sociology, the study of us in groups. The reason I say this is that Dewey (in chapter two) makes a point that we as humans learn from the groups that we are in, religious groups, neighborhoods, work groups, recreational groups and so on. Each group adds to our learning. But because there are groups beyond our presence or surroundings we need schools to formally bring the learning of those groups to our attention. Schools are charged with bringing the cultural learning that needs to be passed down from one generation to the next.
Which brings me back to the subject of social studies and just what should it include that our children need to know so that our society can go further along its path of knowledge. "What social studies is of most worth?"
I know I wrote sometime in the past about my meeting with a colleague from a Russian university. I'm sorry I have forgotten his name but I had troubles saying it much less remembering it. We met at a conference in Paris and both of us were teaching instructional technology to teachers. It was an interesting conversation as he spoke some English but I spoke no Russian. But we managed.
I remember asking him what was the biggest problem facing the Russian schools and he replied, "History." "Which history do we teach our children?" And then he explained that for the moment, they were not teaching anything about Stalin except that he was in charge when "...they (Russia) won World War II." The mass killings that followed were entirely left out of the textbooks. I remember him saying, "It is too soon in history to teach that." Fascinating statement.
Since conversing with my Russian colleague, I have thought much about what we teach in history here in the United States. Do we teach about the Korean War or the Vietnamese conflict or is "...too soon in history to teach that." Recently a friend of mine wrote me about the blog and this thread of what to teach in social studies. She commented about my thoughts and questions on what do they teach in Germany about them losing World War I and World War II. How do you do social studies in Germany? My friend explained that she had met a woman in a yoga class that had come here from Germany as an adult. The lady explained to my friend that when she first read about the holocaust here in the United States, she was afraid to leave her house because she was sure the Americans would all hate her. She had not been taught about the holocaust in her school in Germany. In one sense this incident shows the power of the schools and education.
But what have we in the United States left out of our social studies curriculum over the years? I suspect our history of the native Americans (American Indians) have been biased in favor of the white American in that era. Do we tell the known history of events? What about slavery? Have we told the entire story? If you've read about the social studies review board in Texas that recently has reviewed their social studies textbooks and voted to leave out certain leaders of the past and to include others, then you know that our history is being presented to the school children in a certain way. Perhaps we should not think too poorly of Germany and its exception of the holocaust.
I once lived on "Smugglers' Cove Road" near "Chinamen Point." Do you think there are like names of places in Arizona? My how social studies becomes complex. What should we teach in the public schools?
John Dewey suggests that schools have the power to massage the content and leave out both ends of the knowledge base that may yet need validation...and perhaps a motivation to teach. I think teachers have been doing this for years, finding the importance to pass on to our children...the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly.
My thanks to all those teachers who "massage the content" but make sure the students learn. You do a difficult job. Thank you.