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Did the Social Studies Really Replace History in American Secondary Schools?


by Thomas Fallace — 2008

Background/Context: In recent decades, professional historians have made considerable efforts to reestablish influence over the teaching of history in American schools. This movement has rested upon a generally accepted historical narrative based on four assertions; first, that during the 1900s and 1910s, professional historians dominated the curriculum of most public schools; second, that this control was usurped by the “educationist” authors of the 1916 Committee of the Social Studies; third, that this report recommended social studies courses that amalgamated history and the social sciences to address current events and problems; and fourth, that over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, these amalgamated social studies courses replaced “straight” history in most American schools.

Purpose: The author challenges each of these assertions directly to present a more nuanced, accurate view of these years.

Research Design: Previous studies of this topic have tended to focus on the correspondence among professional leaders and/or the ideologies of the compilers of the Committee of Ten, Committee of Seven, and the Committee of the Social Studies (CSS) reports. While the author touches on these topics briefly as they relate to the four assertions above, the focus of this article is on some internal and external factors that have been overlooked, such as teacher qualifications, the content of textbooks, changing course enrollments, and the effects of the First World War.

Findings/Conclusions: The author argues that the transition from history to the social studies at the secondary level was not abrupt and that the social studies reform movement did not directly target discipline-based history. More important, he demonstrates that, at least through the 1930s, history courses were never fully displaced by amalgamated social studies classes. Therefore, the degree to which history and historians were “replaced” by the social studies and its advocates have been exaggerated in the present literature, and the use of words like, “abrupt,” “disappearance,” and “educationists,” have been misleading.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 10, 2008, p. 2245-2270
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15193, Date Accessed: 7/23/2014 1:47:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Fallace
    University of Mary Washington
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS D. FALLACE is an assistant professor of education at the University of Mary Washington and a lecturer at the University of Virginia. He teaches elementary and secondary social studies methods courses, and works with student teachers. He has written articles on the history of Holocaust education, the role of historiography in history teacher education, and the origins of the social studies. His is the author of The Emergence of Holocaust Education in American Schools (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).
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