Making Sense of Social Studies

reviewed by Stephen J. Thornton - 1992

coverTitle: Making Sense of Social Studies
Author(s): David Jenness
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 0029211557, Pages: , Year:
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In Making Sense of Social Studies, David Jenness takes on a daunting task. The social studies field has long been the arena for frequently shrill curriculum debates. Jenness’s primary focus is the history of the often troubled relationships between social studies in the schools and the social subjects in the universities. It is a timely focus given current curriculum battles—particularly attempts to substitute a subject-based core, with history and geography as the mainstays, for the coalition of subject-based courses and more issues oriented, multidisciplinary courses that has been the curricular norm for several generations.1

Jenness notes that “to some of those professionally involved with higher scholarship and research, the very name ‘social studies’ evidently indicates a suspect, perhaps a hypothetical entity—which some other name would make more real” (p. xvii). He finds this “puzzling" because both his generation and their offspring took social studies courses in the schools: Why does the term social studies still evoke confusion and even hostility?

Part of the confusion no doubt results from social studies’ having no exact corresponding discipline in the university. While professors of mathematics, biology, and literature may be critical of how their subjects are faring in the schools, they are still recognizably their subjects. Professors of history, geography, and the social sciences, on the other hand, may feel little or no identification with the amalgam of subjects constituting the K-12 social studies curriculum. Writing on the preparation of students for college, for example, two sociologists stated that the substance of school social studies courses (in contrast to reasoning skills and the like) is relatively unimportant.2 Some prominent historians and educational policymakers have advocated largely abandoning social studies in favor of history and geography.3 Not surprisingly, this view has received a hostile reception from many social studies theorists.4 Given this controversy, sorting out what is and what ought to be the relationship between the social studies curriculum in the schools and the social subjects in the university is no simple matter.

By writing during the current particularly heated debate over social studies curriculum, Jenness, for better or worse, has put himself in harm’s way. His credentials for battle, therefore, warrant some scrutiny. He tells us that he was commissioned to write Making Sense of Social Studies by the leaders of the recent National Commission on Social Studies (p. xvii). Although the commissioners subsequently endorsed a curriculum with history and geography as the social studies core, and Jenness since then has written in defense of this curriculum focus,5 he claims that his book was written as an “independent” piece of work. By and large, it seems to me (with one significant exception to which I shall return shortly) that Jenness is fair-minded in weighing the evidence. He does not appear to have a particular axe to grind in this book.

It is far from clear, however, why the commissioners chose Jenness to write this book. He has, by his own admission, no professional experience with social studies in the schools: “I was educated in the humanities and trained in the bio-behavioral sciences, [and] most of my professional life has been spent in the social sciences” (p. xvii). Perhaps the commissioners wanted a relatively disinterested outsider to write this book in the manner that anthropologists study unfamiliar cultures—but it is puzzling why it is all kept a mystery.

While Jenness may seem to some an odd choice to write this book, he appears to have taken his charge seriously. He has made a generally laudable and balanced attempt to tap theory and research relevant to social studies education. There is considerable evidence of both wide reading of primary and secondary sources and of extensive correspondence with social studies curriculum leaders and researchers, educational researchers more generally, historians, and social scientists. As I have already alluded to, however, there is one significant gap in his review of the literature: the work of more critically oriented scholars such as Linda McNeil, Jack Nelson, Thomas Popkewitz, and William Stanley. These scholars have done a great deal to illuminate why social studies programs so often do not fulfill their promise and Jenness’s omission of their work is curious in a book with an aim of “making sense” of the field. Overall, despite this gap, a few errors of fact,6 and occasional abrupt ends to sections of the book,7 Jenness has still marshalled an impressive array of information for making sense of social studies. Does he succeed?

Jenness organizes this array of information into five main parts: The first two parts - “Scope of Social Studies” and “History of the Curriculum”—cover ground that will largely be familiar to social studies specialists but, nonetheless, provide a context for what is to come. The recency of his data on course offerings and enrollment patterns should be a good reference source for specialists and non-specialists alike. For readers unfamiliar with the development of the social studies field over time, these first two parts of the book should prove a useful introduction.

The third part, “Subject Matters, " is both the longest section and the heart of the book. It is here that the tensions between school social studies and the social subjects in the university come into sharp focus. Whether it is history, geography, political science, anthropology, sociology, or psychology, social studies educators have either transformed the social subjects for purposes of instruction or created new subjects that bear scant relationship to any university-level subject. In some cases, such as American history, the changes may boil down to little more than simplification for pedagogical purposes. In other cases, such as “civics” or “consumer economics” or “geography,” the aims and content of many K-12 courses may be almost unrecognizable to professors of political science, economics, and geography, respectively.

As I have already pointed out, it is timely to examine the relationships between the disciplines and social studies. Like the 1960s, though without the emphasis on the “structure” of the disciplines, many university-based advocates are arguing that the disciplines should replace supposedly less rigorous social studies courses. History, geography, and the other disciplines, so the argument goes, have been forced out of the curriculum by soft social studies courses. Should we be moving toward a more discipline-centered social studies curriculum?

Jenness takes up this question in the final two sections of the book. He has two main responses: First, he challenges the notion that the disciplines, particularly history, have in fact been replaced by social studies courses. For example, since the rise of mass schooling a century ago, history has had, and retains, a secure and dominant position within the social studies curriculum. It coexists with courses such as consumer economics and civics; it has not been supplanted by them (pp. 255-58).8 Second, while-conceding the failings of parts of the curriculum such as civics (p. 403), Jenness believes that the problems laid at the feet of social studies by the advocates of the disciplines are more the problems of schooling in general: “If history has always been, and still is, the core of the curriculum, . . . why the unease, and why the shrillness of the dispute? To put it crassly, it is because the schools are viewed as defective” (p. 327).

Despite the evident diligence that Jenness has devoted to his work, I nonetheless wonder if he has made “sense of social studies.” In brief, he is more successful at diagnosing what the problems are than at resolving them. His conclusions and recommendations seem wispy after the specificity of his chapters on the subject matters. For example, in spite of his elaborations, I was never quite sure what he meant by: “I have no better short summary to suggest than that the social studies must instill ‘socially realistic thinking" (p. 419). Indeed, when Jenness moves into such abstractions, he tends to lose the reader. When he sticks to a more concrete examination of the evidence, such as his thoughtful chapter on historical studies, he is both readable and clear.

In sum, the strength of this book is its analysis of the relationships between social studies and the disciplines. Jenness is most successful when he sticks to where social studies has been and how it got there. His discussion of where the social studies should go next is too often abstruse. Although Jenness is not entirely successful in his ambitious task of making sense of social studies, his book will surely be an important source for anyone else addressing that task.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 4, 1992, p. 738-741 ID Number: 283, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:02:40 PM

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