Does Social Studies Matter?

Allentown School District may combine social studies with English to make more time for math. Is that a good idea?


On a recent 13-minute drive home from baseball practice, my 15-year-old explained to me how World War I started.

Mind you, I knew the bit about Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by a Bosnian Serb but I couldn’t have told you why other countries started joining in like it was a brawl at an NHL game. 

For most of us, information has a use-it-or-lose-it quality. If we’re not called on in daily life to remember who was president during the Spanish-American War, it might slip our minds. 

What stays are concepts. How America’s founders enshrined freedom of speech, religion and the press in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. That America came to England’s aid to defeat Hitler. How Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders used non-violence to force this country to see the shamefulness of the Jim Crow system.

I bring this up because the Allentown School District is considering combining social studies with English in the sixth grade in order to free up time for more math, according to The Morning Call. The district’s math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests drop off after elementary school, which puts it at odds with the federal No Child Left Behind law. The Allentown School Board could vote on the change April 26.

Combining the subjects might sound like it makes sense because so many works of literature can shed light on historical events: Have a class read “Animal Farm” to learn about communism or “To Kill a Mockingbird” to discuss segregation in the South.

But unless those classes are team-taught by an English teacher and a Social Studies teacher, one of the subjects will be slighted. Plus the time on these subjects would be cut in half.

Allentown is in a pickle. The regiment of high stakes standardized testing instituted by No Child Left Behind diminishes the importance of anything not on the PSSAs, including social studies.

While I was researching other efforts to combine social studies and English, I spoke to Corbin Moore, vice president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies and a former history teacher.

Moore said he’s seen the combining of such subjects done successfully but only when they were team-taught. 

“It can work, but my fear would be that social studies would get the short end of the stick like it usually does,” Moore said. “Pretty much what gets tested, gets taught. You talk about No Child Left Behind, well …social studies was the subject that got left behind.”

Here’s what gets lost: Creativity – one of the hardest talents to measure -- germinates in our frame of reference. Learning world history is key to expanding that.

Social studies helps us understand who we are as a country and what is worth saving. It reminds Americans from diverse backgrounds, ages and ethnicities of our common bond and shared rights and responsibilities. It teaches us what solutions to problems have – and have not – worked.

Perhaps a clergyman I know said it best: Science and math can tell us how to build gas chambers and opera houses. Social sciences like history teach us which one to build.  

Just Sick and Tired April 28, 2012 at 01:36 PM
It's the next logical step in the dumbing down of America. We can't have these kids understanding things like The Constitution or the responsibilities of living as citizen in a Free country. We can't have them walking around with knowledge of History. How are we going to have them vote in Socialism if they were taught the truth about how it doesn't work and really isn't Socialism but always turns out to be tyranny. How are we going to get them to follow Obama like sheep, accept World Government and the redistribution of wealth if they actually have that pesky thing called knowledge.
Chris Miller April 28, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Salisbury resident I agree that we are in a bad place for the moment. I believe we can and will pull ourselves out of this ongoing mess
Chris Miller April 28, 2012 at 11:44 PM
Jon We have allowed our governments to get bigger, more intrusive and more expensive. If we put the local communities in charge and allowed the labarotory the Founders discussed I think we could do more with less because we did not send the money to Harrisburg and Washington where they can collect their portion and send some back to us. I also believe that teaching the history of one's area is a great place to introduce kids to the subject. How many youngsters in our are know that Easton was one of three communities where the Declaration of Independence was read. How many know that we have a state constitution as well as our Federal Constitution. Do they know what a township, county or other entity exists in the immediate area.Are they aware of a local cemetary where 20+ revolutionary war veterans are buried? As to local prejudices do you think they don't exist already in our area as well as our nation. My goodness just look at the mess and Sanford, FL
Jonathan Gerard April 29, 2012 at 02:02 PM
And Chris, it's a law of nature (and thus important for "social studies") that nothing in life remains static. Everything either grows or declines. Groups, McDonalds, MLB, religious denominations, the human body, corporations, government.
Jonathan Gerard May 12, 2012 at 10:29 PM
For those who still doubt the value of social studies, here is an article addressing just this question, to be published in the May 24 issue of The New Republic, by a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. I know that some readers believe that their opinions are as informed and have as much merit as those of an ivy league professor, but for those willing to talk less and listen more (and thus continue to learn) I offer this: The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge-- http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/103086/scientism-humanities-knowledge-theory-everything-arts-science?page=0,0


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