“A primary object…should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing…than…communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country.”
From the Outset:
In 2009, Leon Wieselter, editor of The New Republic (an admittedly opinionated website) responded to a New York Times article that claimed “In Tough Times, The Humanities Must Justify their Worth” as follows:
In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying. The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings…. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. … Regression analysis will not get us through the long night. We need to know more about the human heart than the study of consumer behavior can teach.
The words of Wieselter are remarkable because, rather than defend the worth of the Humanities when these are being questioned, he ultimately questions the purpose of studying everything else. What is its value if it does not impart meaning and spiritual growth? It is through the study of identity and history that we gather meaning and the reasoning abilities to move forward in times of crisis.
Developing Key Skills:
Research shows a positive correlation between an education in Social Studies and cross-disciplinary as well as life-long skills. Students who do not have the opportunity to engage in Social Studies education are often found to be at a disadvantage in the following pillars of learning (for more, see The Ohio Department of Education and Reading Quest):
- Reading and Writing Readiness
- Reading Comprehension
- Classifying, Interpreting, Analyzing, and Evaluating Information
- Social and Political Participation
- Social Development
Pathways to Opportunity:
While this logically follows from the development of key learning skills, it’s impressive to look more closely at how Social Studies affects future success. Life-long opportunities are at stake for our students.
- Social and Political Participation: Studies have shown that children may learn to accept and embrace biases – such as racism – as early as 3 years of age. However, the same studies argue that there is hope: if the child can be introduced to environments in which new ways of thinking are fostered, these biases can be re-considered and dismantled. In addition, “a developed sense of justice and law” is a pre-requisite to being an activepatricipant in a democracy (for more, see Social Studies.org) and classrooms in which students must actively think and communicate about each other’s reasoning facilitate this type of growth.
- College Applications: Should our students want to apply for any top-tier college or university, they will be expected to have a minimum (keeping in mind that applications are looked on more favorably when they exceed the minimum requirements) of 2-3 years of Social Studies classes. Whether or not our students decide to go to college, we must ensure they have access to these opportunities. Harvard, MIT, NYU, and Pomona all require at least two years in the Social Studies classroom.
- Job Opportunities: The College Board has researched the job listings that their Social Studies courses and tests make more accessible to students. They list over 130 career paths ranging from Acting to Legislators to Health Educators to News Analysts. Whether or not a student takes these specific courses of study, a Social Studies education will make these careers more available and real. Our students deserve to have these pathways available.
A National Problem
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), in 2010 only 24% of all graduating seniors were proficient or above in Civics. Breaking these numbers down by race, 30% of White students were proficient or above, and only 8% of Black students were proficient or above. These trends remain consistent across U.S. History, Geography, and Economics. Considering the extent to which this course is directly correlated with engagement in society, these statistics are at a massive detriment to our nation, and to minorities in particular. Most evidence points towards the fact that these are not required or prioritized contents: the Thomas Fordham Institute found that, between 1987 and 2003, the amount of instructional time dedicated to Social Studies in public schools decreased by 18 hours a year. This takes into account only the first year of No Child Left Behind, under which student assessments focused mainly on English/Language Arts and Math – the result being that schools struggling to make needed gains on the test often axed Social Studies instruction in favor of test-prep. And the effects are being felt: despite the election of 2008 being the highest voter turnout in years, only 58% of eligible voters showed, and the number of people who are writing letters to newspapers or to their Congressional representatives have declined by 15%.
Despite all this, there are some slight glimmers of hope. The NAEP also found that there has been a score increase since 2006 for Black and Hispanic eighth-graders on their Civic assessments. And, while there are some legitimate concerns towards the adoption of the Common Core curriculum, the requirements emphasize the importance of non-fiction even within the English/Language Arts classroom.
Social Studies in Mississippi
A recent study conducted by Paul Theobald and Kathy Wood, and featured in Rural Education for the Twenty-First Century, revealed that “rural students and adults alike seem to have learned that to be rural is to be sub-par, that the condition of living in a rural locale creates deficiencies of various kinds – an educational deficiency in particular” even if they are being offered an excellent education (18). The Thomas Fordham institute studied Mississippi’s state standards in social studies and rated them at a 1/7 for rigorous content, and a 1/3 for clarity and specificity. This is an obstacle to our teachers, students, and active participation in democracy. The effects of these mindsets – caused by genuine educational deficiencies – are manifest in the numbers: only 6.8% of adults in Mississippi hold a graduate degree, only 12.6% hold BAs, and only 37% of eligible voters showed up for the presidential elections (Measure of America, 2012). If our students are to succeed and become life-long learners, advocates for their own cause, we need to enact a cultural shift that places value on rural culture and cultural identity.
Given these studies as well as our own regional experiences…
… We believe that a strong Social Studies Education is instrumental to overcoming educational inequality for our students in Mississippi. We know that our students deserve equal opportunities in education so that they may have equal opportunities in their futures. Social Studies set students up for those critical opportunities, and yet they are too often ignored, denying their civic power and future pathways. Our students deserve confidence in their cultural identity, and pride in their voice as world citizens and thinkers. They have the right to the long-term benefits of a strong Social Studies education. They deserve to see Social Studies as providing them with viable pathways to opportunity, with a civic voice, and a knowledge-base of history with which to form their own opinions about the world today.
It is no mystery that Mississippi is rich in culture, history, politics, and a need for civic engagement. From the birth of the Civil Rights movement to the recent ratification of the 13th amendment, Mississippi is brimming with beautiful and difficult history, as well as a long and challenging pathway forward. We need our students to be prepared and willing – or perhaps ready and compelled – to engage with it.
However, the fertile grounds of Mississippi are seldom if ever exposed to our students. Comparing our students’ rural experiences to their urban counterparts, it is only logical that they have less access to museums, information, and civic venues where they can see history play out. The locations where Mississippi history is commemorated, celebrated, and criticized are few and far between for our most rural students. Even if they do get a solid Social Studies foundation, they have limited options in terms of real experiences or opportunities to compete on a national level. It is therefore instrumental that we begin such exposure in the classroom and draw upon the communities we work within to enact a paradigm-shift for Social Studies in Mississippi.