The Social Importance of Social Studies

It is not uncommon these days to read stories about schools opting to put a significant emphasis on math and science curriculum, and gradually lessen the attention or funding given to social studies. This decision will often be viewed favorably because math and science is perceived as being fundamental for the United States to succeed in the presumably technology-driven future. Growing up in Silicon Valley I almost felt like an outsider at school for not being interested in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes or clubs and instead opting to pursue my social studies interests. I believe that social studies teachings are just as important as the ones provided in STEM classes because even though technology centered skills and knowledge will continue to be important in the future, the lessons that can be learned from the past and skills developed using the various social sciences have great bearing on how people will resolve existing problems and address new unfamiliar ones which will arise in the years to come.

Social studies, as the name implies, are integral because they examine every facet of human life whether it be historical events, cultural practices, political policies, or a myriad of other aspects of our societies. Humans are highly social beings and being able to use the knowledge and skills obtained in a social studies classroom gives people the tools to shape the world around them. Social studies are exceedingly relevant in the United States, and Milwaukee in particular, because they can offer guidance and solutions to many of the divisive issues dominating our society. Race based issues in Milwaukee, especially those pertaining to the treatment and equality of African Americans and Latinos, will require critical thinking skills taught in social studies classes for any progress to be made. Keith Barton and Linda Levstik outline what these critical thinking skills are in their book Teaching History for the Common Good and what it looks like to actually do social studies work. The authors state that sociocultural analysis, which would be the most appropriate way to examine race based questions in the United States, requires youths to identify, analyze, respond morally and display their knowledge of a given sociocultural issue (Barton and Levstik, 7). These four actions are able to be effectively applied in an academic environment and to improve the world around each student. In a city like Milwaukee, which has a long history of racism and continues to be one of the most racially segregated areas in the United States, having youths examine these issues from an informed perspective is vital. This starts with identifying the key people and events of the past is the starting point to build factual knowledge surrounding an issue and possibly provide a personal relationship to history. The second step of analysis will aid their understanding of why their city looks the way it does now by explaining how the historical figures and decisions of the past set their city on a particular path. At this point a social studies teacher will ask students to look at what they have learned through an ethical point of view and form an argument to decide what the proper course of action is. Here is an example of a classroom debate, albeit a little silly in nature, but still shows how students formed an ethical argument using the evidence presented to them in class.

This third step in the process asks students individually to question whether or not certain policies or decisions are correct and begin to think about what action should be taken to form the society they wish to live in. James Baldwin eloquently wrote that the core knowledge behind first two steps are important because if you are not educated on of the incredibly flawed past of the United States your misinformed status will keep you from ethically examining the issues plaguing the country. For youths to identify and analyze the situation at hand they must be given accurate and honest evidence because Baldwin argues that “And on the basis of evidence — the moral and political evidence — one is compelled to say that this is a backward society” (Baldwin, 685). This quote highlights the fact that the evidence obtained through the first two steps of Barton and Levstik’s process are necessary to engage with the more complex third and fourth steps. The last step each youth would do is display their knowledge, and in the context of real world application this would take the form of taking action to create the change they desire. In other words, take history into their own hands. An example of taking action can be seen in this video, where high school students learned about the recent decision to terminate the DACA program. They believe that is not an ethical decision and too take action they made decision to walk out from school and assemble a protest.

During my time at various field placements I have seen students build these skills and saw them beginning to understand how historical information and social studies classes can be relevant to their lives. One lesson that stands out to me is when I taught middle school students about the treatment of Native Americans when European nations began to colonize various parts of North America. I provided them with a simple article that gave an overview of what daily life for Native Americans was like and how their villages were organized, which helped them identify some of the core concepts we would be discussing and gave them basic historical evidence they could use for context. What really sparked their interests and developed their critical thinking is when I showed them writings and art done by colonists. They looked at different primary sources which were telling very different stories, as some colonists depicted the Native tribes as peaceful and helpful, while others chose to portray them as violent and uncivilized. This required students to analyze the sources and contemplate what motivations people had for either slandering Native Americans or painting a positive image of their lifestyle. After this there was a class discussion about whether or not justified in their questionable treatment of Native Americans. The students were able to form their own argument about the morality of the colonists’ actions and could cite evidence from the sources they had analyzed earlier in the class. Even though this lesson was centered around the lives of Native Americans 300 years ago it had relevancy to the youths in my classroom because the treatment of minority groups, or simply members of a region being colonized, is still relevant today. The practice the class had in examining evidence and crafting an ethics based argument further supports the idea that social studies skills and teachings are valuable skills inside and outside the classroom.

I am a proponent of the idea that social studies are a worthwhile endeavor because they inform youths about the world around them, teach them how to evaluate evidence, and take an ethical stance on the issue at hand which helps them take action. This process in social studies classes allows people to not only be informed on a topic but actually think about what should be done to make the world better. Other subjects require students to gather evidence but social studies forces learners to critically engage with the evidence and then form articulated stances in an unparalleled fashion. Furthermore, this engagement with evidence and formation of stances is always worthwhile and practical because there are always going to be questions and conflicts that societies must deal with. The best way for a society to have a discussion about a given issue is to ensure that every citizen is well informed and can support their beliefs with a logical argument, which is the aim of social studies.

Cited Sources

Baldwin, James. “A Talk to Teachers.” Collected Essays, Library of America, 1998.

Barton, Keith and Levstik, Linda. Teaching History for the Common Good, Routledge, 2004.