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U.S. History of Civics part 3: The ‘birth certificate’ of social studies

June 11, 2020

The following essay is part 3 in a series that discusses the history of civics education in America.

U.S. History of Civics part 1: The Founders’ vision — ‘What species of knowledge can be equally important?’

U.S. History of Civics part 2: School reforms for COVID-19 point us to successful ed reformers in American history

Between daily news stories of nationwide protests and riots for police reform, governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a looming presidential election, Americans are thinking a lot about government this year. We are all being reminded that government directly impacts our lives – for better or worse – and that we, the American people, hold the power to decide who makes those policy decisions.

As Americans engage this year, a sound understanding of civics is crucial.

As Sutherland Institute has previously noted, American civic education was envisioned by the Founders as a primary aspiration of public education, and deemed necessary in every generation. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and others made the case for why general knowledge of history, geography and government was necessary for the people to engage in and protect the republic.

Education trailblazers like Jedediah Morse, Noah Webster, Horace Mann and John Dewey developed curriculum and helped establish the public schools the believed could fulfill the Founders’ civic vision for American education.

But beginning in the early 1900s, new educational developments would set the stage for standardization – or the creation of a common definition and educational approach of a subject matter – especially in “social studies.” Sometimes the story of standardization in the American social studies shows a clear intent to realize the civic mission of schools, while at other times it shows those efforts fell short of the Founders’ aspirations.

The creation of professional organizations

At the turn of the century, historians had a substantial influence on education. However, at the same time momentum was building for the social sciences to increase their role in in public education. Subjects such as political science, sociology and economics were being developed on college campuses but were not yet in high schools.

By 1884 the American Historical Association had been founded by historians to preserve historical materials, promote historical studies, and support history education. Perhaps largely to further cement its influence in education, the association created a committee and commissioned it to develop the standardization of high school history curriculum.

Social scientists also wanted to establish and interject their disciplines into school curriculum. They attempted to do so, in part, by starting their own professional organizations. In 1903 the American Political Science Association was founded. In 1905 the American Sociology Association was as well. While many agreed that subject of history was important, social scientists believed that history alone was inadequate to answer complex problems in our democracy.

Reformers around this time and into the next few decades helped to solidify the shift toward the social sciences being included in education – what would come to be known as social studies.

Edgar Bruce Wesley

Edgar Bruce Wesley (1891-1980) was a prominent American educator and one of the most significant early leaders in the social studies field, eventually being called the father of social studies.

Wesley started his career as a high school English teacher and later became a teacher of history, civics and sociology. As early as 1905, Wesley used the term “social studies” in his writings, explaining that the field ought to cover a broad range of topics like economics, sociology and civics. But it wouldn’t be until 1937, during his time at the University of Minnesota, that he would publish the broadly influential college textbook Teaching the Social Studies: Theory and Practice. Wesley later wrote more specific works for education reform, including Teaching Social Studies in Elementary Schools (1946) and Teaching Social Studies in High School (1958). In 1935, during his tenure as president of the National Council of Social Studies – a professional organization founded in 1921 – Wesley also built the legitimacy of the organization by establishing a headquarters and creating an annual meeting.

Wesley’s legacy has varied interpretations: Some believe he largely equated social studies with social sciences and that he pushed history into a separate space, while others reject those conclusions. For certain, we know that Wesley had an impact on defining social studies, developing a systematic approach to teaching the social studies, and building professional organizations in the field.

The National Education Association 1916 Report

The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857 originally as the National Teachers Association, which means it existed during these early discussions about history and social studies at the turn of the century. But the NEA would make a defining mark in standardizing the field of social studies with its 1916 report created by its Committee on Social Studies.

The report – which has been called the “birth certificate of social studies” – offered a common definition of the term “social studies” for educators. In its opening pages the report said that social studies “are understood to be those whose subject matter relates directly to the organization and development of human society, and to man as a member of social groups.” From there, the report recommended a scope and sequence – topics and an order for those topics – for social studies education. This groundwork played an important role in standardizing the field for educators and schools and creating more space for standardization in education policy generally.

To create the report, the association partnered with the Bureau of Education, a small unit within the U.S. Department of the Interior (prior to the creation of the U.S. Department of Education) that was tasked with restructuring the American education system. The report reflected philosophies from past reformers. For instance, the work of John Dewey – an American progressive movement education reformer —served as context for the report and his writing and thoughts are referenced throughout it.

In 1921 the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) was founded in order to legitimize social studies and support the educators charged with teaching the subjects in schools. Much like the work of other organizations, NCSS helped to standardize the social studies in education policy and defines social studies as “the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” The NCSS exists today with affiliate organizations all across the country.

The vocationalism shift

Outside of the creation of organizations and associations, historical events played a role in the development of the civic focus of American schools – or the waning thereof.

According to scholars, the civic purposes of higher education began to be overshadowed around the turn of the century by the professionalization of higher education, an approach that sprang from the German research university model – Johns Hopkins University being an example.

By the 1940s, and especially at the end of World War II, this shift had led to higher education broadly emphasizing vocations – or finding a job after graduation – the economic outcomes of schooling rather than civic ones.

However, this shift in focus was sometimes expressed as a patriotic objective – contributing to America through employment was good for the nation. But, notwithstanding the messaging, scholars note that the change in emphasis took a toll on the civic mission and responsibilities of schools. For example, it was around this time that the topic of citizenship was separated from mainstream American education and was often consigned to the occasional civics course or lecture.

Shirley H. Engle

However, leaders would continue to discuss, develop, standardize and modify the field of social studies. Shirley H. Engle (1907-94) was an important reformer in the social studies for several decades. Importantly, he drafted an introduction to the NEA’s famous 1916 report that influenced social studies for decades. In 1970 he served as president of NCSS. And by 1988, even after his retirement, he wrote Education for Democratic Citizenship, a text about how to teach public issues in schools.

Engle’s early career in the field was split between his 17 years as a social studies teacher in secondary and laboratory school and his 31 years with the University of Illinois, where he promoted the ideals of citizenship in a democratic republic through his writing and teaching.

In 1960, Engle wrote one of the most widely quoted and influential articles in the field of social studies, called “Decision Making: The Heart of Social Studies Instruction.” His article supported the philosophies of the New Social Studies movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

This movement included a push for an interdisciplinary approach and an analysis of history to current issues to help students make sense of the complex social events in the ’50s and ’60s, such as desegregation of schools and student protests. On the whole, the movement disintegrated, but it did successfully incorporate into social studies curriculum the idea that history could be studied to inform present-day issues.

While the 1960s New Social Studies movement was considered a failure as a policy shift, it highlights the American story of trying to find the civic mission of public schools in every era.

How to equip students to be civic participants is as relevant to education leaders today as it was throughout history. Questions about racial injustice are still being asked. Protests and riots are still taking place. Young people are still tasked with societal complexities, like a pandemic, social media movements, unexpected schooling shifts, and an upcoming presidential election. It’s no wonder the Founders taught that for the nation to survive each generation’s turmoil, young Americans must be taught about their unique form of government, how to engage it, and how to preserve its limits and usefulness in their lives.

U.S. History of Civics part 4: The U.S. Department of Education (as we know it) is born

U.S. History of Civics part 5: The early 2000s to the year 2020

U.S. History of Civics part 6: Utah’s story

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