Only a First Step
History stands alongside its social studies counterparts—civics, economics, and geography—as increasingly on the endangered subjects list, particularly in the elementary grades. Yet, history occupies a privileged position in the curriculum. For some, this privileged status has strained the relationship between history and the social studies. We argue, however, that history is an umbrella term for a whole range of histories that demand knowledge of social studies/sciences—e.g., political history, economic history, social history. While understanding that the past is important, historians make no claim that history is predictive. For students to understand and act in the present and the future, history alone will not suffice. What history can contribute, however, is a deeper understanding of what it means and has meant to be human in a variety of times, places, and conditions—a necessary underpinning of effective citizenship in a democracy.
What’s bad for social studies, then, is bad for history and it is undoubtedly an uncertain time for social studies. Largely ignored in the No Child Left Behind legislation and increasingly reduced in the elementary school curriculum, social studies teeters between viability and irrelevance. This precarious state has been further complicated by the widespread state adoption of the Common Core standards in English Language Arts. As state departments of education face greater budget cuts and in the absence of a clear consensus around the purpose and outcomes of social studies education, the Common Core standards in English Language Arts and the section of literacy standards devoted to “History/Social Studies” could become the de facto standards for social studies, particularly in the early grades.
But instead of worrying about what might be lost if history and social studies is relegated to a strand of content literacy, we view the field as ideally situated to enhance the English Language Arts Common Core and in fact to enhance school in general. History and social studies are inherently interdisciplinary, and should be an ideal staging ground for the consideration of big social issues and dilemmas, which require disciplinary literacies. Within the purview of social studies are content/ideas that inform democratic life; skills that enable civic action; and dispositions that commit us to the democratic values of justice, freedom, and the common good.
Common Core English Language Arts Standards for History/Social Studies can be an important framing mechanism to re-energize history and social studies. However, the Common Core is only a first step. With the solid statement validating history and social studies literacies that the Common Core offers, our efforts now should be to establish a larger framework for social studies that compels and supports democratic life. We view this as a challenge and an opportunity that may very well define history and social studies for students in generations to come.