Social Studies for Our Time

by Wayne Morse - 1963

The authorís comments on the importance of the social sciences in the modern day school curriculum. It is important for teachers to know how their work appears to the general public or to one who, like the author, stands half-way in the teaching profession.

WHEN THE EDITOR asked me to comment upon the importance of the social sciences in the modern day school curriculum, I confess that the adage about the timidity of angels venturing to tread occurred to me. Upon reflection, however, since I am a practicioner of an applied branch of one of the social sciences, government, I accepted.

This article perhaps presents nothing new; but it is important, in my judgment, for teachers to know how their work appears to the general public or to one who, like myself, stands half-way in the teaching profession. As a legislator, I must be an educator if I hope to do my job well, for the job of a legislator is the job of communicating to constituents, to representatives of various interest groups, and to his colleagues, ideas, values, and judgments. For a legislator to function effectively, he must present his views persuasively, and this in turn is possible, only if the views, values, and ideas he holds are rationally based upon knowledge, conviction, and principle.


This foreword to the discussion of the role of the social sciences in the school curriculum is given in an attempt to make it clear why I hold, as I do, that these subjects are not only legitimate areas of study, but of major importance as well. As William James pointed out, "We may philosophize soundly or badly, but philosophize we must"; so, as adults and as citizens, we must constantly make social judgments, soundly or badly, in ways that affect every area of our lives. The quality of our response to the social, political, and economic questions put to us is dependent upon the sum of our experience, and today, as perhaps never before in our history, informed judgments on the part of every American citizen are vitally necessary if we are to survive as individuals and as a nation.

It is true that the social sciences have been given explicit recognition in the school curriculum only in the last 90 years, roughly speaking, through the establishment of courses in history, geography, and civics. The social science program, as we know it today in our schools was patterned largely after the recommendations of the 1916 Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education of the NEA. The question today is how, in view of the changing nature of our society and world, this 46-year-old-blueprint ought to be modified to take into account the expansion of knowledge as exemplified by the research findings on the learning process and the many other tremendous additions to the fund of scholarship upon which our school courses are based.

We know that in the field of mathematics, much care and effort has been expended upon revisions of content. Methodological changes in the presentation of the new program content are also being urged. Likewise, in the fields of the natural and life sciences, there has been much revision of both the subject matter and the methods employed in teaching. Recent studies have suggested that these alterations reflect a healthy process of reevaluation which merits serious consideration by those concerned with the curricula of the social sciences.

Undoubtedly, many modifications could be made to take into account the recent contributions of the traditional disciplines, the new area studies, and the interdisciplinary programs now established in many of our graduate schools. Before a too radical revision is made, however, of all our existing patterns of teaching in the social studies, careful thought should be given as to how this can best be done.


It is perhaps a sense of legal caution which causes me to remember that there are but a finite number of hours and minutes in a school day which must be apportioned among many subject-matter areas. Weight must also be given to the administrative problem involved in the retraining of teaching personnel to acquaint them with the major changes which are contemplated in the methodology and content of courses.

As a legislator, I know that institutional and community inertia must be overcome if changes are to be made, and that this process takes much time and effort. From the public discussion of education legislation, it is clear that there is a tremendous job of educating the parent which must be undertaken when changes are made in the education of his child.

One of the political symptoms of our time which must be faced frankly is that while many parents place a high value on education, they tend to equate "a good education" with the norms and methods current during their own school years. Some would even wish to return to the school world and curricula of the 1880s, for they look upon that time with a false nostalgia made particularly acute by the fact that they are experiencing it, not directly, but through the rose colored stereoptican glasses of their parents and grandparents. Though their pseudo-vision may be in error, the simplistic values they profess have an impact upon the community and constitute a problem, often a harsh one, to be met by the school administrator and the teaching profession.

Many sociologists have been particularly sensitive to the need for additional research funds and, what is almost as important, to the need for recognition within the academic community of the contribution their discipline can make in bringing together the fragmented research findings of scholars trained in other areas so that social science teacher-training programs for the elementary and secondary schools may be soundly constructed.

As long ago as 1957, my good friend, Dr. Harry Alpert, now at the University of Oregon, brought to my attention the work in the social sciences being carried on by the National Science Foundation. The work of that agency, in this area, deserves continued support and encouragement. I asked for appropriations then for that purpose, and I shall do so again in the sessions of the Congress in which I serve. Such research and the utilization of that research in the teacher-training programs of our colleges and universities can only be helpful.

In this connection, mention also ought to be made of the activities of the United States Office of Education in carrying out its authorities under the Cooperative Research Act. I hope that this activity can be strengthened, because we need to know much more about the learning process itself and how to apply efficiently what we have learned in the past few years about the way in which children actually do learn.


It is to me a most frightening and disturbing thing that about 20 per cent of our young men, 18 to 23 years of age, have been rejected for military service because they could not pass a sixth grade test in reading and arithmetic. If one out of five are rejected by the draft boards because they are, in effect, illiterate, it points up, in my judgment, the job which we must do, and soon, in our elementary and secondary schools. A minimal national goal, it seems to me, would be to lower that percentage to between 5 and 8 per cent at the most.

To achieve this goal, we shall have to spend money, but it is money well spent if it succeeds. The public school aid bill of the 87th Congress would have provided a start in getting federal money for this purpose to the school districts where it is needed. That bill died in the House of Representatives, as did the higher education bill in the session of 1962. Here we have a tragic waste because we have lost two irreplaceable years of progress. We have shortchanged our young people educationally and ourselves socially and politically. In 1963, that situation ought to be changed. It can be changed, if at the crossroads of America, in the towns and cities of the country, teachers and parents speak with authority to their elected representatives at all governmental levels and make it un-mistakenly clear that it must be changed.

There is a real need, it seems to me, to encourage able students in high school to start to plan for careers which require training in the social sciences. The emphasis which we are now placing on science and mathematics is healthy in the long run only if, at the same time, we also place additional emphasis on the social science disciplines and upon the study of English. I fear that unless we recognize this need at the high school level, the serious imbalance which we are encouraging under present types of assistance will tend to become progressively worse. The further implications, with respect to the impact on higher education, of the pressures on programs and policies engendered by existing legislation have caused responsible spokesmen in the university community to raise their voices in warning against a trend the continuation of which, they feel, may very well deflect the university from its proper function.


Why then, should we encourage the development and increase the importance of the social science curriculum in our secondary school system? The answer really is that we have no choice but to do so. The development of science and technology on the one hand and the manifold of social, political, and economic events which are the very stuff of history since World War II leaves us no choice.

Science and technology, through their present developments and the visions of the future they yield, hold forth the promise of enormous improvement in man's environment and at the same time the threat of complete extinction. In themselves, science and technology are neutral. The uses which men make of them will determine the future of man. All rational men have rejected the deliberate use of nuclear warfare as an instrument of national policy, but no substitute for war has yet been provided. The peacetime uses of science and technology require more safeguards against air, water, and soil pollution, against dangers to health, than the public has yet been able to obtain through legislation. The human problems raised by science and technology just in the past two decades alone, while vast, are not insoluble, but the present programs in the social studies may not adequately equip our future citizens to deal with them effectively and understandingly.

The United Nations, established with 51 members in 1945, increased its membership to 104 in 1962 with five new nations requesting membership in that year. This community of nations is seeking a peaceful way to help all people of all nations realize larger aspirations for freedom, economic well-being, literacy, good health, and all the other benefits which orderly government and advancing technology have conferred on the more highly developed countries. It seeks the future benefits of science to all people.

These dramatic changes which have characterized the last two decades cannot be adequately understood by our elementary and high school pupils through a basic program which stresses little more than an exposure to United States history and government with the study of geography ending for the majority of pupils at grade 7.

If we are to renovate the social science curriculum, should not the following features of current world movements be carefully considered?


First, the international conflict between the free world and the communist bloc raises problems at home as the tensions arising from the international struggle bring demands for the limitation of free discussion and for censorship, demands which violate the fundamental guarantees of the Bill of Rights. It raises questions of violations in practice of principles strongly supported, such as we have witnessed in conflicts arising from racial tensions, in which segregation and restrictions upon suffrage have been condoned and excused. It requires a democracy which can show vitality in grappling zestfully with both domestic and international problems. More study of the functioning of our government at all levels is clearly desirable. Greater motivation among our young people for undertaking a more demanding, active type of citizenship is a goal we should establish.

Second, the actions in the international sphere carried on through the United Nations and its specialized agencies, through regional agreements such as NATO and the OAS, should receive study designed to encourage a continuing interest in those developments. The European Common Market, the communist bloc, and the growth of sentiment toward larger aggregations of power, exemplified in the Arab League and in the proposed political unification of Europe, are other examples of the sort of content which should receive added emphasis in the social studies curriculum.

Third, the evolution of new economies in underdeveloped countries and changing economies in the economically mature nations calls for a more complete understanding of what an economy is and how it functions. Economics has too long been slighted in our schools. The role of manpower, technology, resources, productivity, and all the factors involved in economic growth and stability could receive greater elaboration and treatment in depth. International movements of goods and capital investment which draw national economies into a world economy can be evaluated best by an over-all knowledge of what an economy is and how it works.

Fourth, population changes are a result of scientific and technological advance. Lower death rates are due to improved sanitation and medical care and better nutrition. In underdeveloped countries, these factors may cause a population explosion. Where a mounting population presses on scanty resources, poverty may be tragically increased. The increased mobility of population within countries, particularly in the rapid urbanization of advanced industrial nations, raises new problems. New social classes are created by the manpower requirements of the new technology. The social role of women is changed by the demands for workers. Changes like these alter the power structure of a society, modify or abolish old laws and customs, and create new systems of social control. Demography must become a familiar object of study for American youth.

Finally, the increasing volume of international contacts through travel and the mass media tends to increase the speed of cultural change through cultural interaction. Provincial attitudes tend to be modified with greater knowledge of other peoples, their customs and folkways, their arts and crafts, and their religions.


The solution to these problems requires a knowledge of sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology, world geography, political science (especially comparative government), world history, and social psychology. School programs must be built out of this knowledge and a sensitivity to its relevance for our major problems. Are our social studies teachers now equipped to help their pupils understand the world of today and the still more fantastic world of tomorrow with their present knowledge and training? If not what should be done?

The major question is not whether emphasis should be given to the social sciences in our schools; it is one of identifying and effectively teaching the modern disciplines most relevant for informed citizenship. We need to make sure that those who teach the social studies are fully equipped in order that they may help our pupils to understand and behave intelligently and humanely in the world of today and the surely even more fantastic world of tomorrow.

In this session of the Congress, I anticipate that through such legislation as the Improvement of Quality Education Bill, we in the Congress will start again to provide enabling legislation, but we must look to the teaching profession itself to provide us with the guidelines, the standards, and the criteria for changes within the social science curricula in order to achieve our common goal of providing to each of the young citizens entrusted to our schools the opportunity to develop to the maximum his native talents and abilities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 64 Number 6, 1963, p. 439-439 ID Number: 2884, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:41:24 PM

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