Bring Back Social Studies
The most obvious and well-reported casualties of the last decade in program-slashing educational policy include traditional elective courses like art, music, and physical education. But these are not the only subjects being squeezed out or eliminated entirely from many public K-12 curriculums.
Social studies—a category that includes courses in history, geography, and civics—has also found itself on the chopping block. Whereas in the 1993-1994 school year students spent 9.5 percent of their time in social studies, by 2003-2004 that percentage had dropped to 7.6, despite an increase of total instructional time.
Why has a traditionally “core subject”, which was ranked in the same academic hierarchy as English, science, and math for decades, been sidelined in thousands of American classrooms?
The shift in curriculum began in the early years of the Cold War. While U.S. military and technological innovation brought World War II to a close, it was a later use of technology—the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957—that historian Thomas A. Bailey called the equivalent of a “psychological Pearl Harbor” for many Americans. It created deep feelings of inadequacy and a belief that the U.S. was falling behind in developing new technology and weapons, which led to the passage of the 1958 National Defense Education Act. This legislation pumped $1 billion over four years into math and science programs in both K-12 schools and universities.
Despite this extra focus on math and science, social studies managed to make it through the end of the Cold War relatively unscathed (in fact, the number of classroom hours dedicated to teaching social studies in grades 1-4 peaked in the 1993-1994 school year at 3 hours a week). But drastic change came a decade later with the passage of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation.
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Beyond the absolutely horrifyingly low levels of knowledge today’s incoming undergraduates have about the politics and history of their own country—and how that mortifies people like me who teach political science to undergraduates—is the sheer reality that we are becoming a large (population) democracy with a politically illiterate citizenry. How long do we think that can last? Another generation or two?
As a political science teacher, how do you think we can escape the problem of “rational ignorance”, as discussed by Public Choice economists?
My dear young man/woman. I’m very glad you read Anthony Downs and are familiar with rational choice theory as it applies to cost/benefit analysis of obtaining political information. But please note that Downs is referring to specific information about specific issues. Not general information about the broader political system.
Fo a brief review, see the “rational ignorance" entry in Wikipedia. Notice that it applies to the cost of additional information relative to the perceived benefit. In other words, I may need to know that Congress has the power to declare war. But for any particular military action, the cost of obtaining individual legislators’ voting records to predict future votes may outweigh the general benefit. But basic knowledge of the problem, its context, and the institutions that deal with it is not within the scope of “rational ignorance” thesis as knowledge that’s immaterial.
BTW, Downs in his Economic Theory of Democracy wasn’t arguing that individuals should remain ignorant. He was arguing that although many individuals are ignorant about many issues, on average the voting across issues balances out because some individuals are knowledgeable about some issues. I’m fairly certain Downs’s theory falls apart if most voters are ignorant about most issues.
For example: I have a PhD in political science and am therefore probably considered “highly educated” about politics. But I don’t—and can’t possibly!—keep up with the policy details of every issues. No one can. So I can vote and remain ignorant of a lot of information involving key issues. But I assume that many of my peers or people I respect are knowledgeable, and so I defer to their judgement.
Here’s another example: It’s rational for me to not know how to repair my car’s engine. But it’s irrational for me not to know that my car has an engine and needs regular maintenance. And it’s irrational for me not to know that I should find a good mechanic to service the car.
In the context of American democracy, I should know what my basic rights are (including the right to remain ignorant). And I should know that laws are made by Congress, not the president. And I should have some idea of the general history of the country (and the world)—at least well enough to know when I’m being manipulated by someone.
I think that’s what most of us mean (at least what I mean) by a basic social studies education. I may be relatively ignorant of the ins/outs of the debt ceiling debate. But I should know it’s happening. I may choose to remain ignorant about bond interest rates and derivatives. But I should know that the Federal Reserve exists.
The real problem is that we can’t be (or claim to be) patriotic and then not teach the basic structures and principles of our country’s political system. Certainly the Founding Fathers didn’t think so.