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Where is the Baby: The New Definition of Social Studies

by Anatoli Rapoport, Purdue University 

The new definition of social studies is based on understanding of the importance of inquiry-based approach in education, development and application of critical thinking skills, critical literacy, multiple perspectives, and active engagement in civil discourse and civic life of a community. It justifiably includes a distinguished global perspective by focusing on global civic life, global responsibilities, human rights and the just world. I, however, decided to pen this text not to outline what IS in the new definition, but what is NOT there. 

Civic competence. Civic competence that combines knowledge, skills, and dispositions that allow a person function in a community for the good of the community and serves as a common denominator in the evaluation of person’s role in the community, is a critical factor for the development of a society. The new definition lists essential elements of civic competence, namely knowledge and skills, but avoids the more comprehensive term “civic competence.”

Decision making. Paraphrasing Shirley Engle, inquiry now is the heart of social studies. But… what is the purpose of inquiry? Inquiry for the sake of inquiry? What is the purpose of “examination of vast human experiences through the generation of questions”? What is the purpose of “collecting and analyzing evidence from credible sources” or “consideration of multiple perspectives”? All these steps of inquiry, as well as the inquiry itself, are necessary for making a decision. Decision that is reasoned and informed by examined human experience, evidence from credible sources and consideration of multiple perspectives. Why then the sole purpose of inquiry-based process, that is informed and reasoned decision, is not emphasized in the new definition? 

Democracy/democratic. The 1916 report of the National Education Association Committee on the Social Studies that was probably the most influential document in the history of social studies in the United States, recommended that the first truly Social Studies course in high school that integrates several social science disciplines would be “Problems of Democracy.” Democracy, problems of democratic development, democratic society and democratic citizenship have been the focus of social studies since its origin in 1915-1916. To strip the definition and purpose of social studies of its democratic education component now, when only 3 years ago we all witnessed a clear attempt to end the democratic experiment in the United States and keep observing almost daily sometimes implicit but more and more often explicit efforts to reverse democratic development in the nation, is a mistake. Name another area in school curriculum that teaches students basic principles of democratic development and democratic government. It’s us. It’s only us in social studies. And the most recent events tell us that we are not doing it well. Instead of dropping the idea of democratic citizenship from the definition, NCSS should have placed more emphasis on the role of social studies as practically the only area  that provides democratic education in school. 

Citizenship. Absence of any reference to citizenship seems to be the most glaring omission in the new definition. Every semester, I start my Secondary Social Studies Methods course by asking students to carefully read the 1992 definition and purpose of social studies and tell me what word they believe is missing. The word that I ask my students to add to that definition is “good.”  “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions… as [GOOD] citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” We all are citizens, but are we good citizens? Preparation for civic life is obviously an important function of social studies education. I argue, however, that good productive and active citizenship is more than being prepared for local, national and global civic life. One can be prepared for a “lifelong practice of civil discourse and civic engagement in the community,” but does this make them a part of a community?  Citizenship is defined as membership in a community, local, regional, national, or global. Good citizenship implies active engagement in the community, not only readiness to engage. Readiness for civic life and good citizenship are seemingly similar concepts, but by substituting one for the other we remove an important element of personal  connection to a community. 

Much has changed since 1992. There is no doubt that social studies needed a definition that would reflect changes in society and educational practices. But when I read the new definition, I keep asking myself if the National Council has not thrown the baby with the bathwater.