Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Beef With Social Studies

Another Update: Ever read your own writing after the fact, and think to yourself, "Who writes this stuff? I could do it so much better!" Well, I decided that a few edits were necessary to clarify and emphasize my main point, which previously was getting lost in all the caveats.

Update: fixed an embarrassing misspelling. They are known as the Elgin marbles, not the Eglin marbles. Sheesh.

All right, time to poke the hornet's nest again and see what comes out. :-)

Here's a thought experiment.

Let's say that an educational reformer somewhere decides that our kids aren't learning enough about "Culture," and designs a curriculum to remedy this fact.

The general idea behind the Culture curriculum, is that all all aspects relating to culture will be folded into this one subject area, which can then be taught in a systematic way, instead of being taught in a scattershot manner as a collection of unrelated subjects. So for instance, Literature classes will be folded into the new Culture curriculum, because Literature is one of the major ways that a culture expresses itself.

So along this vein, all the following subjects--which can be seen as expressions of the Cultures of the societies that manifest them--get folded into the new Culture curriculum:

  • Literature
  • Music appreciation and music performance
  • Art appreciation and practice
  • Civics/Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • P.E. (After all, sports are a form of cultural expression!)
  • Foreign Language

And of course, in the interest of providing insight into other cultures, at least as much time is given to Literature, Music, Art, etc... of these cultures, especially non-Western ones.

Now, let's say this whole idea catches on, and schools across the whole land start replacing their relevant existing courses with Culture classes. And because this subject is clearly of monumental importance, school districts everywhere start making Culture a course required of all secondary school students, who must take an hour a day for the entire four years they are in high school.

So, tell me: under this arrangement, how much Literature are they actually going to learn? How much Foreign Language? How much Philosophy? How much exercise will they actually get?

My guess is, this would be a disaster. Simply stated, the above list of subjects is simply too big to be covered in a one-hour class each day, even over the course of four years. In my own high school career, I had four years of choir , four years of English/Literature/Philosophy, three years of Foreign Language, one year of AP American Government, and two years of P.E. If I add all that up, it averages three and a half hours' classroom time each day for four years, and that doesn't even cover all the topics on the above list. (And I still didn't learn my German very well. Of course, that was more an artifact of my own lousy study habits than the fact that I only had an hour a day for three years....)

The Culture course that supplants all these subjects only gives one hour a day. By aggregating all these subjects together and making it all fit between period bells, the result is to cut down drastically on the amount of time spent on each of these subjects, and thus cut down drastically on the depth of knowledge actually passed on to the pupils.

Well, consider everything that went into the course called "Social Studies" when I was in high school (some of which may actually be off the list by now, which is a good thing):

  • World History
  • American History
  • Anthropology
  • Geography
  • Archaeology (to the extent that we covered it)
  • Civics/American Government/Political Science
  • Philosophy (although, to be fair, I got more of this in my Literature classes than in Social Studies)
  • Economics
  • Health--including First Aid, Drug Education, and Sex Ed (with a rather bracing unit on STDs)
  • Drivers' Training

And clearly, since this is such an important topic, we'll assign all students to one hour every school day for all four years of their High School career.

So, tell me: under this arrangement, how much World History are they actually going to learn? How much Economics? How much American History or American Government or Political Science or Political Philosophy? How much Geography?

Do you start to see what my beef with the idea of "Social Studies" is? As my wife puts it, Social Studies courses were just another side dish in the educational buffet our schools put up. It was also something of a dumping ground for all kinds of short courses that the schools were required to teach, when there wasn't a better place to put them. After all: Drivers' Training for crying out loud! What's that got to do with the Articles of Confederation?

The course matter that goes into what we call "Social Studies" should be more than just another side dish: it's the main course. The subjects that go into social studies tell us, in no small part, who we are; who else is out there; how we relate to them; how we're all organized; how we got to be where we are; how our government is organized, and what our rights and responsibilities are; how other societies and governments are organized; what works and what doesn't in each system; and so on. It's a big chunk of the core curriculum that we're trying to pass on to our children.

So we throw all our history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, economics, government, political philosophy, and a host of other stuff together into one class; give it one class period a day; and then expect our students to come away with an in-depth understanding of the way all this stuff works? Color me highly, highly skeptical.

Now, I need to insert a few caveats here. First, I'm not in the least opposed to the idea of "aggregating" subjects. Some subjects are taught together very well: history and geography, history and archaeology, history and philosophy, history and literature, literature and philosopy, US History and American Government, physics and mathematics... the list goes on. I like the approach used at some universities (or at least, used to be used at some universities before being declared politically incorrect) of having a Western Civ course of study--which covered history, literature, philosophy, geography, economics, and religion together as one massive subject--which constituted the core of each student's education for the first two years or so of their university experience. So I'm all for aggregating subjects as appropriate--so long as we recognize just how big the aggregated course is, and give it enough time and energy to make sure it gets taught and learned properly.

Second, I'm fully aware that some students are simply not made for some subjects. I have a brother-in-law who's great with computers, but never got into great literature or history, being more of a science fiction kind of guy. Frankly, for someone like this, his time is better spent brushing up on his technical skills and on knowledge of trends in his industry than it would be reading about eight-hundred-year-old battles (although I think he'd most appreciate the ones that involved massive siege engines--we're kindred spirits that way). So some allowance clearly has to be made for students whose talents primarily lie in other fields.

Third, I realize that there are only so many hours in the day. The amount of knowledge out there worth knowing is huge; no one gets out of high school knowing more than a fraction of that which would be useful and/or edifying. So much of planning a curriculum is deciding what one will not be covering, simply because there isn't time. What can we afford to let slip through the cracks, and what can't we?

But with all these caveats granted, I've been thinking for some time about the kind of education I want to provide for my children. We will not be treating "Social Studies" as one topic, requiring one hour a day instruction time. The topics that make up "Social Studies", along with the topics that make up my hypothetical "Culture" curriculum, will in fact make up the core of our children's education, and will most likely require most of the educational day, at least by the time the children enter high school.

Now, we do intend to teach these topics in as integrated a fashion as possible. It just seems reasonable to read Greek myths as we study the history of the ancient Greeks, while we're learning the geography of the Mediterranean basin, while we're learning about Socrates and Aristotle and Plato and Euclid, while we're studying pictures of the Elgin Marbles and the Parthenon. But we intend to keep in mind the fact that this aggregated subject is the core of their curriculum, and give it the weight and energy needed to do justice to the fact.

Oh, and one other thing--we aren't the first homeschooling family to think along these lines. These ideas show up a lot in Charlotte Mason's writings; they show up in books on Classical Homeschooling theory (such as The Well Trained Mind, which we're using); and they show up a lot among those who use a Unit-Study approach. So, while we're as crochety, ill-tempered, and independent-minded as any homeschoolers out there, it's still nice to know that we aren't actually alone in thinking this way. :-)

(And one more thing, before anyone else complains: no, we're not neglecting math and science. I may talk about these later, depending on what the muses have to say...)

1 comment:

the Fish said...

Lord help us, that's exactly what they're doing in our local middle school. Only they call it Humanities.