Social Studies Education Essay

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The social studies in K–12 education represents the specific area of the curriculum that deals with the social, cultural, and political content of what is being taught. In 1992, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the main professional leadership and accreditation group for social studies education in the United States, described the field as including “the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” The field is interdisciplinary and includes subjects such as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. According to the NCSS, the primary purpose of the field is to help students be able to make informed and reasoned decisions as members of a culturally diverse and democratic society—one that is also part of a larger global culture. This entry looks at how the social studies curriculum developed and outlines some of the key controversies.

Historical Background

In schools in the United States, social studies has been traditionally associated with the disciplines of history and geography. In recent years, however, the field has increasingly drawn upon the insights of other academic fields, including anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology.

Social studies education, in terms of its founding as a curricular field, is rooted first and foremost in the study of history as a modern subject in colleges and universities—one that emerged during the final decades of the nineteenth century. The first efforts to develop a high school curriculum for the social studies came about through the efforts of the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten, which issued a detailed report in 1894 calling for the modernization of the high school curriculum. In 1899, the committee issued a subreport on social studies, which highlighted the need to improve historical study at the elementary and secondary levels. Civil government— what was to become civics—was included in the American history curriculum, which was taught in Grades 7 and 11, along with coursework in Greek, Roman, French, and English history, spread throughout the other grades.

Most curriculum historians agree that the modern field of social studies originated with the 1916 publication of The Social Studies and Secondary Education by the National Education Association Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Schools. Earlier reform movements during the 1890s had introduced history as a core subject in the curriculum. In 1916, the idea of citizenship education was introduced as well. It is the themes of history as a discipline and citizenship education that came to dominate social studies education during the period following World War I. Reforms continued into the 1920s and 1930s. Harold Rugg, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, drew on progressive educational theory—specifically the work of John Dewey—in calling for social studies to focus around problems dealing with contemporary life. Criticisms of Rugg’s work focused around the belief that the interdisciplinary and integrative approach he emphasized created a “social stew” with little focus or purpose.

Further attempts to better define the social studies curriculum came in 1929 with the American Historical Association’s Commission on the Social Studies. The commission’s report, which was drafted by Charles Beard and George S. Counts and issued in 1934, was a radical work, very much reflecting a social reconstructionist approach—one that considered the American capitalist system to be a failure and insisted that social change was imperative. Reactions to the report from the media were extremely negative, rejecting suggestions made in it that the social reconstruction of American society needed to take place through educational reconstruction.

The concerns about the report had to do with the growing fear that communism and socialist theories were spreading throughout the country. Conservatives called for the schools and teachers to inculcate patriotic values in children, and not to have them critically engage in independent social thought. Figures such as Rugg came under attack in 1935 at the same time for a series of social studies textbooks he had developed titled Man and His Changing Society. These works, while emphasizing history, also required students to consider how they might act as agents for change in American society.


The attacks on Rugg were led by the American Legion and continued through the end of the decade and the beginning of World War II. The attacks against him were important in that they pointed to the extent to which the social studies curriculum was controversial and contested.

This trend has continued into the present. In the mid-1960s, controversy erupted over the development of the new social studies, part of an attempt by academic leaders and scholars to anchor the curriculum in disciplinary fields. Figures such as Jerome Bruner came under extensive attack for supposedly undermining the morals of students as a result of his project, Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) (1970), a Grade 7– 9 curriculum that shunned absolute values in favor of relativistic interpretations (e.g., Is euthanasia on the part of Eskimo people justified for the survival of the tribe?). Other reasons for the rejection of the curriculum had to do with Bruner’s inclusion of information about the practice of wife-swapping, adultery, and cannibalism in Eskimo culture. Among the protesters complaining about the MACOS curriculum were Mel and Norma Gabler. The Gablers were Christian fundamentalists from Texas who, in the early 1960s, had become upset over the content of their son’s high school history textbooks. Essentially, they concluded that the basic information included in these textbooks did not provide sufficient emphasis on patriotic values, while emphasizing organizations such as the United Nations and the supposed benevolence of the federal government. The Gablers discovered that history textbooks used in schools were adopted as part of a statewide review—a widespread practice in many states. Realizing that they could lobby to change the content of school textbooks that were being used in their state, they rapidly developed a highly effective program to introduce more conservative material in textbooks. Because Texas adoptions were so important to national textbook publishers (Texas being such a large market as adopters), their demands for change became influential nationwide.

The efforts of the Gablers are interesting in the context of this entry because they reflect the fact that history textbooks, and in turn the social studies curriculum, represent one of the most contested areas of the curriculum. The textbook protests of the Gablers were, in fact, remarkably similar to the protests over the Rugg social studies textbooks of the late 1930s. The issue raised by them—one that continues to be contested in our own era—is, What should be the nature and purpose of the curricular content of social studies?


  1. Bruner, J. (1968). Toward a theory of instruction. New York: Norton.
  2. Evans, R. W. (2004). The social studies wars: What should we teach the children? New York: Teachers College Press.
  3. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1990). Religious fundamentalism and American education: The battle for the public schools. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  4. Ross, E. W. (Ed.). (2006). The social studies curriculum: Purposes, problems, and possibilities. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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