Op-Ed

Decline in teaching social studies contributes to national discord

White nationalists shouted as they marched in Charlottesville in August.
White nationalists shouted as they marched in Charlottesville in August. NBC News

We cannot afford to wait until the next national tragedy to value social studies education in this country.

In addition to cultivating the skills and dispositions most sought-after by employers, a robust social studies curriculum aids in closing a “civic achievement gap” that disproportionately affects low-income families.

Without a strong social studies curriculum at the core of our education system, we must admit we are failing our children — especially our most at-risk populations — and allowing the next generation to fall victim to the misguided, revisionist history that fueled the hateful acts in Charlottesville.

Social justice, civil discourse, empathy, historical context and civic engagement are at the heart of preventing and resolving instances like the one we witnessed there.

We often hear, “People are not born that way; hate is a learned behavior.” So, why have we not declared a national educational priority? If education’s purpose, as Malcolm Forbes said, “is to replace an empty mind with an open one,” then we should make a concerted effort to do just that in our school communities every day. We have allowed the very courses and subjects that provide the perfect avenue for these much-needed conversations to dwindle in importance over the years.

Experts have followed “the decline of social studies education” for over half a century. Its began as World War II ended and our nation turned its focus to math and technology. In 1975, the New York Times wrote, “If knowledge of the past is in fact relevant to our ability to understand the present and to exercise freedom of mind — as totalitarian societies, both real and fictional, acknowledge by stringently controlling what may be studied or published — then there is cause for concern about many Americans’ sense of history.”

During our most recent recession, school systems were forced to trim down to bare bones. Guided by No Child Left Behind, schools were strong-armed into prioritizing math and English, pushing science aside, and hiding social studies on the shelf, dusting it off only when there is a national holiday to be celebrated.

Almost four decades after the Times warning, a 2013 article in The Atlantic, reinforces, “It’s clear that something has to change when only one-third of Americans can name all three branches of government; when only 23 percent know the First Amendment supports freedom of religion.”

If we subscribe to the belief that hate is a learned behavior, we must also take ownership for failing to provide an educational space to combat the inequality that haunts minorities every day and that paralyzes our nation in times of tragedy.

History matters. Civic engagement matters. And, because of their decline, social justice, civil discourse, and empathy have become lost arts in a nation of people who can no longer talk to one another.

Every year that we put social studies on a shelf and perpetuate the irresponsible idea that it is not a national educational priority, we waste an opportunity to teach skills in humanity to our most impressionable citizens, and future leaders.

Every generation hopes to leave a better community, nation and world for their children and grandchildren. I would argue that this “better place” is not a gift to be unwrapped, but rather a framework to be built.

A strong social studies curriculum that provides equitable opportunities for civic engagement, civil discourse and historical context would certainly make for a more perfect foundation.

Jacqueline Coleman of Harrodsburg is an assistant principal and founder/president of Lead Kentucky, which teaches young women leadership skills.

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