Monday, December 10, 2012

A Critique of Social Studies

In this provocative article in the City Journal, Michael Knox Beran investigates the origin and aims of social studies to argue that this "pseudo-discipline" should no longer be taught in our schools.  Here's the basic reason why: 

The test of an educational practice is its power to enable a human being to realize his own promise in a constructive way. Social studies fails this test. Purge it of the social idealism that created and still inspires it, and what remains is an insipid approach to the cultivation of the mind, one that famishes the soul even as it contributes to what Pope called the “progress of dulness.” It should be abolished.

And in this passage, he gives some powerful examples of what the social studies approach does:  

Social studies, because it is designed not to waken but to suppress individuality, shuns all but the most rudimentary and uninspiring language. Social studies textbooks descend constantly to the vacuity of passages like this one, from People and Places:
Children all around the world are busy doing the same things. They love to play games and enjoy going to school. They wish for peace. They think that adults should take good care of the Earth. How else do you think these children are like each other? How else do you think they are like you?
The language of social studies is always at the same dead level of inanity. There is no shadow or mystery, no variation in intensity or alteration of pitch—no romance, no refinement, no awe or wonder. A social studies textbook is a desert of linguistic sterility supporting a meager scrub growth of commonplaces about “community,” “neighborhood,” “change,” and “getting involved.” Take the arid prose in Our Communities:
San Antonio, Texas, is a large community. It is home to more than one million people, and it is still growing. People in San Antonio care about their community and want to make it better. To make room for new roads and houses, many old trees must be cut down. People in different neighborhoods get together to fix this by planting.
It might be argued that a richer and more subtle language would be beyond third-graders. Yet in his Third Eclectic Reader, William Holmes McGuffey, a nineteenth-century educator, had eight-year-olds reading Wordsworth and Whittier. His nine-year-olds read the prose of Addison, Dr. Johnson, and Hawthorne and the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant. His ten-year-olds studied the prose of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, and Macaulay and the poetry of Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

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