The Why Question
Along with my schedule of social studies classes, I also serve as an advisor for 15 students once a week. Through advisory I spend time looking at their grades, checking in with their lives, and mostly building relationships that are often lost between teachers and students in high school. While I love the chance to have such a close relationship with a handful of students, it seems like a week does not go by without one or more of them asking me about why they have to study this subject or another. "Why do I need to take Calculus?" or "Why do I need biology when I am not going to be a biologist?" For a long time, I would simply tell them that learning math, science, English, and history were all part of what made them well-rounded students, able to succeed in college and beyond. Recently, I came to a different conclusion.
With continuing pressure from many groups to push the idea of making students successful in the 21st century employment market, to focus on STEM, and to teach classes that have a direct and measurable economic impact, social studies are often neglected. It seems as if in the short time students have in school, they could spend their time much more effectively learning computer programming, or physics, or calculus than "soft skills." As a recent New York Times article by Gerald Howard stated:
We live in a time when college enrollment in the humanities is declining precipitously, in good part because majoring in such subjects seems unlikely to result in gainful employment in a strapped economy.
Yet the social studies themselves allow me to answer these recalcitrant students. It is the social studies that answer the why question in education. Social studies are the reason why we learn everything else in school. It is through the social studies that we learn a practical application of everything else that we study.
When we study science, we are preparing to understand the things like climate change, deforestation, and desertification that we look at human geography and current world issues courses. When we study math, we are learning about principles and equations that allow us to understand government debt, economic crises, and future trade issues as they come up in world history and economics classes. When we study English and look at literature, we are gaining a deeper appreciation of the lives and views of people that we come across in our classes and the rest of our lives. While the science, math, and English courses provide the tools we need to understand our world, it is the social studies classes that provide us the laboratory space to apply them to the world around us.
Without these labs of citizenship, our students will be unprepared to lead the change that will be called for in the future. Instead of getting practical experience guided by experts deeply committed to their field, they will be set adrift in the world and need to learn fast without the resources to do so. As social studies teachers, we must defend our work as the birthplace of citizenship.
Many people believe education must have an direct economic impact, and that there needs to be a return on investment that is clear and tangible. They focus on STEM because it will prepare students for the jobs of the future, but they neglect the fact that we will want more than just workers in the future. We live in a democracy, which requires more than just workers, it requires engaged citizens willing to take charge and lead their country forward. If we neglect to train actively engaged citizens, we will have a country of people who know how to take orders and do their jobs, but no one able to lead and question if those job should even be done. Social studies courses are where we learn to ask the questions needed to sustain democracy.
While I used to tell my advisory students that they learned math, science, and English because these subjects made them well-rounded students, I have now changed my response. Now, when I am asked the same question I answer, "so you can be successful in your social studies classes."
John Hines currently teaches world history and AVID at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, Washington. He also serves as the vice president of the Washington State Council for the Social Studies and is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2013. Hines is a graduate from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in history and politics & government and is a proud, lifelong resident of Tacoma, Washington.
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