Thursday, October 16, 2014

Susan's Opinion: Social Studies without History is a Bad Idea

Proposed new  social studies standards are drawing teacher concerns, according to today's Herald-Leader report.  Teachers say the standards give little guidance on what students should learn each year.

The draft Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies is available in the materials for the October 7 Kentucky Board of Education meeting: go to that portal, scroll down to Item IX and then look for Attachment B.

I've read the full document, and I agree with the teachers. My biggest concern is that the draft social studies standards contain no history.

No Valley Forge, no Gettysburg, no D-Day, no Berlin Wall, no falling Twin Towers. No Industrial Revolution and no Depression. No slavery, no segregation, no civil rights movement. No Trail of Tears. No debate over the Bill of Rights and no seventy-year struggle for women's suffrage. And for that matter, no Isaac Shelby, no Isaac Murphy, and no Kentucky at all except for a single reference to the state constitution.

Instead, there's only a section on Historical Thinking, which calls only for overarching skills in thinking about history: chronological reasoning, contextualization and perspectives, historical arguments, and interpretation and synthesis.

This is a big problem for children's learning: no one can use those big skills without having some meaty history to apply them to. Especially, "contextualization" means figuring out how a particular primary document relates to a bigger historical situation--which means you can't do it at all until you've learn a bunch of history.

It's also a big problem for students preparing for citizenship: They really do need to recognize the main outlines of what happened in their state, country, and world before they were born, in order to join the debates about what should happen next. 

And it will be a problem for many who participate in our political community.  Have you heard recently about activists who argue that the new AP U.S. History standards omit too many important parts of our shared heritage? Having also read the APUSH standards, I think those critics are wrong.  But if the same folks criticize these draft Kentucky standards for the same kind of omissions, they will be right.  Those who have worked for decades to ensure that our children understand that our heritage includes the diverse experience and diverse contributions of America's indigenous peoples, by African-Americans, and by more recent immigrant groups, will be just as frustrated.

Finally, these draft standards could be taught equally well in Oregon, Uruguay, or Oman: they're not designed to equip citizens of Kentucky and the United States for the work of participating here. I think that's a mistake.

--Posted by Susan Perkins Weston


  1. These folks want kids to remember our heritage, but only the bad parts.

  2. Hi, Lee! I know there are folks with the agenda you describe, but I don't think that's KDE's purpose in this. I'm sure they want kids to have a balanced understanding of their heritage. It's just that they think students can assemble that without a systematic approach, and that the state's attention can be on the history skills without a shared plan for the content.


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