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Rethinking Social Studies: Critical Pedagogy in Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship

reviewed by Todd Hawley - February 15, 2018

coverTitle: Rethinking Social Studies: Critical Pedagogy in Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship
Author(s): E. Wayne Ross
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681237555, Pages: 268, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com



Rethinking Social Studies: Critical Pedagogy in Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship is a brutally honest exploration of the current state of social studies teaching and teacher education. E. Wayne Ross’ book is a subversive blueprint, a mixtape capturing a lifetime of thinking, writing, and activism. Ross articulates a vision of a future social studies where citizens are “dangerous to an oppressive and socially unjust status quo, to existing hierarchical structures of power” (p. 50). Rethinking Social Studies is written in deeply theoretical, tactical, and personal ways, capturing Ross’ spirit as a transformative force willing to confront the dismal state of social studies education. His writing resonates outward, encouraging teachers and teacher educators to embrace the transformative potential of connecting social studies classrooms with real-life issues facing citizens and their communities. Throughout, Ross remains optimistic that citizen action, developed through “insurgent pedagogies” (p. 51), can prevail over a corporatized, capitalistic approach to social studies education.


Ross doesn’t pull any punches. From the start, the reader is confronted with his take on the current state of social studies. According to Ross, “Social studies is the engine room of illusion factories whose primary aim is reproduction of the existing social order; where the ruling ideas exist to be memorized, regurgitated, internalized, and lived by. If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!” (p. xxi). While social studies could be the most dangerous subject in schools, it has been reduced to the regurgitation of facts in the service of maintaining the status quo while producing eager consumers. Fortunately, Ross is an optimist who is living out the transformative spirit embedded in his vision for the future of social studies.


Rethinking Social Studies is divided into three parts, each designed to build on the other and to increase the intensity of the waves sent out to disrupt the status quo. In Part One, Ross issues a call to action, challenging social studies teachers and teacher educators to “reject the lines as drawn and start to construct a new vision” (p. 20). This new vision makes up the majority of the rest of Parts One and Two. In Chapter Two, “(If Social Studies is Wrong) I Don’t Want to be Right,” written with Perry Marker, Ross revisits his critique of the Fordham Foundation’s attack on social studies and provides a detailed account and additional context regarding the push for traditional approaches to social studies teaching and learning.


These chapters set the stage for the most compelling and challenging chapter of the book, Chapter Three, “Insurrectionist Pedagogies and the Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship,” written with Kevin D. Vinson. In this chapter, Ross simultaneously deconstructs neoliberal education reforms and their impact, introduces education for dangerous citizenship, and provides examples of “pedagogically pedagogical possibilities” by providing examples that draw upon “a wide range of theoretical and social practices outside of the realm of education” (p. 51). Education for dangerous citizenship represents the best of what social studies can and should be. For Ross, the pedagogical practices he outlines are only “a tentative set of steps toward reestablishing the place of living and authenticity as against alienation, passivity, antidemocracy, conformity, and injustice” (p. 63). Ross’ vision makes clear that an approach to teaching social studies so as to develop dangerous citizens is no more political than the effort to develop and enact the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards. Social studies teachers and teacher educators are ultimately responsible for deciding what is seen as normal and necessary regarding the future of social studies teaching and learning.   


In Part Two, “Social Education and Critical Knowledge for Everyday Life,” Ross breaks down his approach to educating dangerous citizens into several component parts, all necessary for a future social studies where teachers and students critically explore their local and national communities. Chapter Four, “Social Studies Requires a Revolution of Everyday Life,” makes powerful connections between social justice education and social studies education. Tied closely to his thinking on the future of critical pedagogy, Ross attempts to reimagine critical pedagogy as a space where “students (and educators) can develop personally meaningful understandings of the world and recognize they have agency to act on the world, to make change” (p. 94). To bring these ideas to life in social studies classrooms, in Chapters Six and Seven Ross expands his arguments for teaching about social class and how social studies classrooms can be places where students develop a class consciousness. Together they demonstrate the potential of dangerous citizenship to disrupt the status quo and engage students in learning related to their development as current and future states as citizens.


Anyone who has worked with pre-service and in-service teachers on enacting critical pedagogical approaches to teaching social studies has had to address their concerns that they could be fired for teaching against the grain. Ross flips the script on this question, and in Chapter Eight asks, “How Do I Keep My Ideals and Still Teach?” Written with Rich Gibson, Greg Queen, and Kevin D. Vinson, Chapter Eight provides a way forward to social studies teachers whose rationales are more in line with the social reconstructionists than traditional approaches to teaching. It is at this point in the book that Ross begins to provide examples of his own work, in this case with the Rouge Forum, to demonstrate ways to make transformative teaching (and activism) possible. As a collaborative, grass-roots organization, the Rouge Forum provides an example that others might follow as they confront the neoliberal, corporate stranglehold on the system of public education in the United States.


Chapter Nine, “Teaching for Change: Social Education and Critical Knowledge for Everyday Life,” presents Ross’ pedagogic creed and challenges social studies teachers and teacher educators to develop their own purposes for teaching social studies. Serving as the bridge between the insurgent pedagogical approaches of educating dangerous citizens and the purposes that guide those practices, Chapter Nine outlines Ross’ thinking and provides a framework for understanding where he is coming from while firmly embedding the work of Part Two in social studies classrooms. At the same time, the pedagogic creed outlined in Chapter Nine allows Part Three, “Beyond the Classroom,” to expand the resonance of Ross’ work. Here Ross positions teachers and teacher educators as public intellectuals. As Ross demonstrates, developing a pedagogical creed, a deeper sense of the purposes guiding your practices, is both personal and political.


In Chapter Ten, “Social Studies as Public Pedagogy: Engaging Social Issues in the Media,” Ross documents his experiences engaging with and writing for media outlets both large and small. Taking into consideration the rise of social media as well as traditional outlets, Ross’ thinking on the corporatization of the media and the connections between the media and conservatism is important and timely. His advice, presented at the end of the chapter, should be required reading for anyone considering expanding their audience as a social educator. Writing for newspapers and magazines has enabled Ross to “learn and become more actively involved in various local and national networks of activists for social justice, democracy, and progressive education” (p. 196). Following Ross’ lead, social studies teachers and teacher educators should consider adding their voices to larger local and national discussions regarding education and democratic citizenship.


Part Three is easily the most personal part of the book. In Chapter Eleven, Ross opens up about his educational journey from rural North Carolina to his current work at the University of British Columbia. Here we find the rare opportunity to take a deep dive into the life experiences that have shaped his thinking about teaching, social studies, social action, and citizenship. His example demonstrates the power in self-study and self-exploration. Social studies teachers, teacher educators interested in pushing themselves to be more transformative, and those who are struggling to see the transformative potential within themselves can benefit from reading this chapter and considering how their life experiences have shaped their purposes and work in social studies classrooms.


The final chapter of the book, an interview conducted by Carlo Fanelli, serves as a return to the big ideas of the book. It serves as a nice bookend to the initial critique of traditional social studies. Throughout the interview, Ross remains optimistic, finding hope in hopelessness, while guiding the reader out along the ripples towards a future vision for social studies. In the possible futures Ross envisions, social studies teachers and teacher educators are committed to working within and against the existing social order, especially within schools and communities where social studies education can have the greatest influence. In the interview, Ross reiterates his belief that social studies, like education itself, “is not about showing life to people, but bringing them to life” (p. 228). Once social studies teachers and teacher educators begin to approach their work as an effort to create classroom conditions that bring students to life, we will be on our way to enacting insurgent pedagogies that develop dangerous citizens.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22274, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 9:10:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Todd Hawley
    Kent State University
    E-mail Author
    TODD S. HAWLEY is an associate professor in the School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University. His recent publications include Race lessons: Using inquiry to teach about race in social studies and "Making their own path: Pre-service teachers’ development of purpose in social studies" in Theory and Research in Social Education.
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