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Keith Benson

Intro to Social Studies


12.6.2006
Dr. Ben Justice

How do kids experience social studies in the classroom? What is happening in New
Jersey Public Schools?

The social studies experience most students take away from public education is

usually an unpleasant one. Most students recall being faced with endless days of lecture

and bookwork; commonly learning about historically famous men and events. Ironically,

very little social studies in the classroom, is spent on studying society. More often than

not, classroom social studies is a daily history seminar; much like what was decried in

1916.

Social Studies was meant to integrate a variety of disciplines such as civics,

economics, geography and history. Later and more modern interpretations of social

studies held that it should be more subject-inclusive and less dominated by history.

Further, social studies should be more relevant to students’ daily lives and center around

improving societal problems. Unfortunately, after more than a century’s worth of

criticisms, very little changed concerning the subject matter and methods of social studies

instruction. Social studies classrooms are still dominated by historical lectures given by

teachers, and information within textbooks

Terrie Epstein, in “Racial Identity and Young People’s Perspectives on Social

Education” raises the issue that students do not always view the teacher or text as a

source for accurate historical information. This especially holds true, she believes, when

referring to minority students. Minority students in particular, are much more skeptical to
the views expressed in social studies classrooms by white teachers and their school

textbooks. The central theme to her article was that students are “not empty vessels or

blank slates waiting for the received wisdom of teachers and texts”; but that student’s

backgrounds and prior experiences are brought with them inside the social studies

classroom. This is especially true within the social studies classroom, unlike those of

math and science, because so much of what is taught in social studies is subject to

interpretation and observation. The question then becomes, to the student, “what is

‘true’”? Epstein suggests many minority students are more inclined to listen to their

parents, family members, and documentaries than just their teachers or textbooks. Her

underlining point is that social studies as we know it today should be taught in context

with our students’ lifestyles and differences.

As the readings suggests, social studies classrooms are places where students of

varying backgrounds learn the carefully selected histories and ideals of America at-large.

Inside classrooms are where students are taught information about America; the degree of

congruence toward their daily lived experience in America differs highly between races

and economic backgrounds as Dr. Rubin describes. Dr. Rubin comments that students “in

a racially and socioeconomic-ally integrated setting which emphasized analyses of social

inequality expressed the desire to become actively involved in social change.”

There is vast amount of agreement between Epstein’s article and Dr. Rubin’s.

Epstein describes how minority children are more interested in the social change aspect

that motivates societal moves, as opposed to those brought by the passing of laws and

bills. Dr. Rubin, in her “Pledge of Allegiance” study, notes the classroom setting where

the racial demographic of white students and high income levels was the majority, the
ideals of the Pledge were largely accepted; whereas, in the classes where there was more

diversity, or completely minority, the ideals were not as readily acknowledged. Epstein’s

study on the Bill of Rights showed virtually identical results.

In New Jersey public schools, where Core Curriculum Standards reign supreme,

there is not much diversity in the lessons being taught, or how the lesson is delivered.

This is especially unfortunate, because New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated

state, has the most African Americans per square mile, has the fourth highest percentage

of Latino residents, the highest concentration of Muslim Mid-Easterners and has a vast

chasm between the rich and poor. New Jersey’s demographic make up is very diverse, yet

the schools are the most segregated in the country and, largely, governed by the politics

of local municipalities or micro-managed by state observers. New Jersey has all the

ingredients for being a wellspring for progressive and socio-cultural education;

unfortunately however, it is not.