Emerging as a force in American education a century ago, social studies was intended to remake the high school. But its greatest effect has been in the elementary grades, where it has replaced an older way of learning that initiated children into their culture with one that seeks instead to integrate them into the social group. The result was a revolution in the way America educates its young. The old learning used the resources of culture to develop the child’s individual potential; social studies, by contrast, seeks to adjust him to the mediocrity of the social pack.
Why promote the socialization of children at the expense of their individual development? A product of the Progressive era, social studies ripened in the faith that regimes guided by collectivist social policies could dispense with the competitive striving of individuals and create, as educator George S. Counts wrote, “the most majestic civilization ever fashioned by any people.” Social studies was to mold the properly socialized citizens of this grand future. The dream of a world regenerated through social planning faded long ago, but social studies persists, depriving children of a cultural rite of passage that awakened what Coleridge called “the principle and method of self-development” in the young.
The poverty of social studies would matter less if children could make up its cultural deficits in English class. But language instruction in the elementary schools has itself been brought into the business of socializing children and has ceased to use the treasure-house of culture to stimulate their minds. As a result, too many students today complete elementary school with only the slenderest knowledge of a culture that has not only shaped their civilization but also done much to foster individual excellence.
In 1912, the National Education Association, today the largest labor union in the United States, formed a Committee on the Social Studies. In its 1916 report, The Social Studies in Secondary Education, the committee opined that if social studies (defined as studies that relate to “man as a member of a social group”) took a place in American high schools, students would acquire “the social spirit,” and “the youth of the land” would be “steadied by an unwavering faith in humanity.” This was an allusion to the “religion of humanity” preached by the French social thinker Auguste Comte, who believed that a scientifically trained ruling class could build a better world by curtailing individual freedom in the name of the group. In Comtian fashion, the committee rejected the idea that education’s primary object was the cultivation of the individual intellect. “Individual interests and needs,” education scholar Ronald W. Evans writes in his book The Social Studies Wars, were for the committee “secondary to the needs of society as a whole.”
The Young Turks of the social studies movement, known as “Reconstructionists” because of their desire to remake the social order, went further. In the 1920s, Reconstructionists like Counts and Harold Ordway Rugg argued that high schools should be incubators of the social regimes of the future. Teachers would instruct students to “discard dispositions and maxims” derived from America’s “individualistic” ethos, wrote Counts. A professor in Columbia’s Teachers College and president of the American Federation of Teachers, Counts was for a time enamored of Joseph Stalin. After visiting the Soviet Union in 1929, he published A Ford Crosses Soviet Russia, a panegyric on the Bolsheviks’ “new society.” Counts believed that in the future, “all important forms of capital” would “have to be collectively owned,” and in his 1932 essay “Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?,” he argued that teachers should enlist students in the work of “social regeneration.”
Like Counts, Rugg, a Teachers College professor and cofounder of the National Council for the Social Studies, believed that the American economy was flawed because it was “utterly undesigned and uncontrolled.” In his 1933 book The Great Technology, he called for the “social reconstruction” and “scientific design” of the economy, arguing that it was “now axiomatic that the production and distribution of goods can no longer be left to the vagaries of chance—specifically to the unbridled competitions of self-aggrandizing human nature.” There “must be central control and supervision of the entire [economic] plant” by “trained and experienced technical personnel.” At the same time, he argued, the new social order must “socialize the vast proportion” of wealth and outlaw the activities of “middlemen” who didn’t contribute to the “production of true value.”
Rugg proposed “new materials of instruction” that “shall illustrate fearlessly and dramatically the inevitable consequence of the lack of planning and of central control over the production and distribution of physical things. . . . We shall disseminate a new conception of government—one that will embrace all of the collective activities of men; one that will postulate the need for scientific control and operation of economic activities in the interest of all people; and one that will successfully adjust the psychological problems among men.”
Rugg himself set to work composing the “new materials of instruction.” In An Introduction to Problems of American Culture, his 1931 social studies textbook for junior high school students, Rugg deplored the “lack of planning in American life”:
Repeatedly throughout this book we have noted the unplanned character of our civilization. In every branch of agriculture, industry, and business this lack of planning reveals itself. For instance, manufacturers in the United States produce billions’ of dollars worth of goods without scientific planning. Each one produces as much as he thinks he can sell, and then each one tries to sell more than his competitors. . . . As a result, hundreds of thousands of owners of land, mines, railroads, and other means of transportation and communication, stores, and businesses of one kind or another, compete with one another without any regard for the total needs of all the people. . . . This lack of national planning has indeed brought about an enormous waste in every outstanding branch of industry. . . . Hence the whole must be planned.
Rugg pointed to Soviet Russia as an example of the comprehensive control that America needed, and he praised Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, which resulted in millions of deaths from famine and forced labor. The “amount of coal to be mined each year in the various regions of Russia,” Rugg told the junior high schoolers reading his textbook,
is to be planned. So is the amount of oil to be drilled, the amount of wheat, corn, oats, and other farm products to be raised. The number and size of new factories, power stations, railroads, telegraph and telephone lines, and radio stations to be constructed are planned. So are the number and kind of schools, colleges, social centers, and public buildings to be erected. In fact, every aspect of the economic, social, and political life of a country of 140,000,000 people is being carefully planned! . . . The basis of a secure and comfortable living for the American people lies in a carefully planned economic life.
During the 1930s, tens of thousands of American students used Rugg’s social studies textbooks.
Toward the end of the decade, school districts began to drop Rugg’s textbooks because of their socialist bias. In 1942, Columbia historian Allan Nevins further undermined social studies’ premises when he argued in The New York Times Magazine that American high schools were failing to give students a “thorough, accurate, and intelligent knowledge of our national past—in so many ways the brightest national record in all world history.” Nevins’s was the first of many critiques that would counteract the collectivist bias of social studies in American high schools, where “old-fashioned” history classes have long been the cornerstone of the social studies curriculum.
Yet possibly because school boards, so vigilant in their superintendence of the high school, were not sure what should be done with younger children, social studies gained a foothold in the primary school such as it never obtained in the secondary school. The chief architect of elementary school social studies was Paul Hanna, who entered Teachers College in 1924 and fell under the spell of Counts and Rugg. “We cannot expect economic security so long as the [economic] machine is conceived as an instrument for the production of profits for private capital rather than as a tool functioning to release mankind from the drudgery of work,” Hanna wrote in 1933.
Hanna was no less determined than Rugg to reform the country through education. “Pupils must be indoctrinated with a determination to make the machine work for society,” he wrote. His methods, however, were subtler than Rugg’s. Unlike Rugg’s textbooks, Hanna’s did not explicitly endorse collectivist ideals. The Hanna books contain no paeans to central planning or a command economy. On the contrary, the illustrations have the naive innocence of the watercolors in Scott Foresman’s Dick and Jane readers. The books depict an idyllic but familiar America, rich in material goods and comfortably middle-class; the fathers and grandfathers wear suits and ties and white handkerchiefs in their breast pockets.
Not only the pictures but the lessons in the books are deceptively innocuous. It is in the back of the books, in the notes and “interpretive outlines,” that Hanna smuggles in his social agenda by instructing teachers how each lesson is to be interpreted so that children learn “desirable patterns of acting and reacting in democratic group living.” A lesson in the second-grade text Susan’s Neighbors at Work, for example, which describes the work of police officers, firefighters, and other public servants, is intended to teach “concerted action” and “cooperation in obeying commands and well-thought-out plans which are for the general welfare.” A lesson in Tom and Susan, a first-grade text, about a ride in grandfather’s red car is meant to teach children to move “from absorption in self toward consideration of what is best in a group situation.” Lessons in Peter’s Family, another first-grade text, seek to inculcate the idea of “socially desirable” work and “cooperative labor.”
Hanna’s efforts to promote “behavior traits” conducive to “group living” would be less objectionable if he balanced them with lessons that acknowledge the importance of ideals and qualities of character that don’t flow from the group—individual exertion, liberty of action, the necessity at times of resisting the will of others. It is precisely Coleridge’s principle of individual “self-development” that is lost in Hanna’s preoccupation with social development. In the Hanna books, the individual is perpetually sunk in the impersonality of the tribe; he is a being defined solely by his group obligations. The result is distorting; the Hanna books fail to show that the prosperous America they depict, if it owes something to the impulse to serve the community, owes as much, or more, to the free striving of individuals pursuing their own ends.
Hanna’s spirit is alive and well in the American elementary school. Not only Scott Foresman but other big scholastic publishers—among them Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—publish textbooks that dwell continually on the communal group and on the activities that people undertake for its greater good. Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.” The book’s scarcely distinguishable twin, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill’s We Live Together (2003), is suffused with the same group spirit. Macmillan/McGraw-Hill’s textbook for third-graders, Our Communities (2003), is no less faithful to the Hanna model. The third-grade textbooks of Scott Foresman and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (both titled Communities) are organized on similar lines, while the fourth-grade textbooks concentrate on regional communities. Only in the fifth grade is the mold shattered, as students begin the sequential study of American history; they are by this time in sight of high school, where history has long been paramount.
Today’s social studies textbooks will not turn children into little Maoists. The group happy-speak in which they are composed is more fatuous than polemical; Hanna’s Reconstructionist ideals have been so watered down as to be little more than banalities. The “ultimate goal of the social studies,” according to Michael Berson, a coauthor of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt series, is to “instigate a response that spreads compassion, understanding, and hope throughout our nation and the global community.” Berson’s textbooks, like those of the other publishers, are generally faithful to this flabby, attenuated Comtism.
Yet feeble though the books are, they are not harmless. Not only do they do too little to acquaint children with their culture’s ideals of individual liberty and initiative; they promote the socialization of the child at the expense of the development of his own individual powers. The contrast between the old and new approaches is nowhere more evident than in the use that each makes of language. The old learning used language both to initiate the child into his culture and to develop his mind. Language and culture are so intimately related that the Greeks, who invented Western primary education, used the same word to designate both: paideia signifies both culture and letters (literature). The child exposed to a particular language gains insight into the culture that the language evolved to describe—for far from being an artifact of speech only, language is the master light of a people’s thought, character, and manners. At the same time, language—particularly the classic and canonical utterances of a people, its primal poetry—has a unique ability to awaken a child’s powers, in part because such utterances, Plato says, sink “furthest into the depths of the soul.”
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.
McGuffey adapted to American conditions some of the educational techniques that were first developed by the Greeks. In fifth-century BC Athens, the language of Homer and a handful of other poets formed the core of primary education. With the emergence of Rome, Latin became the principal language of Western culture and for centuries lay at the heart of primary- and grammar-school education. McGuffey had himself received a classical education, but conscious that nineteenth-century America was a post-Latin culture, he revised the content of the old learning even as he preserved its underlying technique of using language as an instrument of cultural initiation and individual self-development. He incorporated, in his Readers, not canonical Latin texts but classic specimens of English prose and poetry.
Because the words of the Readers bit deep—deeper than the words in today’s social studies textbooks do—they awakened individual potential. The writer Hamlin Garland acknowledged his “deep obligation” to McGuffey “for the dignity and literary grace of his selections. From the pages of his readers I learned to know and love the poems of Scott, Byron, Southey, and Words- worth and a long line of the English masters. I got my first taste of Shakespeare from the selected scenes which I read in these books.” Not all, but some children will come away from a course in the old learning stirred to the depths by the language of Blake or Emerson. But no student can feel, after making his way through the groupthink wastelands of a social studies textbook, that he has traveled with Keats in the realms of gold.
It might be objected that primers like the McGuffey Readers were primarily intended to instruct children in reading and writing, something that social studies doesn’t pretend to do. In fact, the Readers, like other primers of the time, were only incidentally language manuals. Their foremost function was cultural: they used language both to introduce children to their cultural heritage and to stimulate their individual self-culture. The acultural, group biases of social studies might be pardonable if cultural learning continued to have a place in primary-school English instruction. But primary-school English—or “language arts,” as it has come to be called—no longer introduces children, as it once did, to the canonical language of their culture; it is not uncommon for public school students today to reach the fifth grade without having encountered a single line of classic English prose or poetry. Language arts has become yet another vehicle for the socialization of children. A recent article by educators Karen Wood and Linda Bell Soares in The Reading Teacher distills the essence of contemporary language-arts instruction, arguing that teachers should cultivate not literacy in the classic sense but “critical literacy,” a “pedagogic approach to reading that focuses on the political, sociocultural, and economic forces that shape young students’ lives.”
For educators devoted to the social studies model, the old learning is anathema precisely because it liberates individual potential. It releases the “powers of a young soul,” the classicist educator Werner Jaeger wrote, “breaking down the restraints which hampered it, and leading into a glad activity.” The social educators have revised the classic ideal of education expressed by Pindar: “Become what you are” has given way to “Become what the group would have you be.” Social studies’ verbal drabness is the means by which its contrivers starve the self of the sustenance that nourishes individual growth. A stunted soul can more easily be reduced to an acquiescent dullness than a vital, growing one can; there is no readier way to reduce a people to servile imbecility than to cut them off from the traditions of their language, as the Party does in George Orwell’s 1984.
Indeed, today’s social studies theorists draw on the same social philosophy that Orwell feared would lead to Newspeak. The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities, a 2006 collection of articles by leading social studies educators, is a socialist smorgasbord of essays on topics like “Marxism and Critical Multicultural Social Studies” and “Decolonizing the Mind for World-Centered Global Education.” The book, too, reveals the pervasive influence of Marxist thinkers like Peter McLaren, a professor of urban schooling at UCLA who advocates “a genuine socialist democracy without market relations,” venerates Che Guevara as a “secular saint,” and regards the individual “self” as a delusion, an artifact of the material “relations which produced it”—“capitalist production, masculinist economies of power and privilege, Eurocentric signifiers of self/other identifications,” all the paraphernalia of bourgeois imposture. For such apostles of the social pack, Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Milton’s and Tennyson’s “soul within,” Spenser’s “my self, my inward self I mean,” and Wordsworth’s aspiration to be “worthy of myself” are expressions of naive faith in a thing that dialectical materialism has revealed to be an accident of matter, a random accumulation of dust and clay.
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.
Photo: A Los Angeles social studies teacher displays traditional Peruvian clothing. (MICHAEL NEWMAN/PHOTOEDIT)