No facts or concepts could be more relevant to the day-to-day workings of our democratic republic than those of civics, history, government and geography. And yet in public schools across America, those topics, which fit under the label of social studies, seem to get short shrift.
Popular ignorance of the mere basics is a hazard for the people.
That’s why it resounds outside the classroom that social studies teachers and scholars are voicing opposition to a new plan by New York State’s Department of Education. It's incremental, but under it the state would drop, for the next two years, the usual practice of including scores from tests covering U.S. History and Government along with Global History and Geography from the state agency’s academic rating of high schools.
DOE officials say there is nothing for proponents of civics education to fear. They say that some Regents exams were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic, which means there would be a lack of “benchmark” data with which to compare schools, justifying the temporary move. But social studies groups are alarmed and skeptical. They have been especially so since the Regents voted in 2010 to eliminate social studies tests in fifth and eighth grades, and they were never restored.
Lisa Kissinger, president of the New York State Council for the Social Studies, is urging education officials to reconsider their planned change in school ratings. She has inveighed against any devaluation of the core subject. In response, a senior education official, Theresa Billington, denies any such downgrading is at work.
One test of the state’s commitment to social studies is coming up. In November, a report is due from the Regents’ blue-ribbon commission on graduation requirements. Optimists expect the panel to call for a real beefing up of social studies education. That would be wise.
At the moment, communities and their elected officials are divided over how we educate ourselves about race, gender, individual liberties and the collective good of the people — and how these matters are taught and tested. But there’s a uniting concept behind social studies if done right: the made-in-America notion that only an educated public can fend off tyrants and find common ground.
Teaching history and government in public schools must be based on a common-sense consensus about which facts to explore and how to put them in context in a nonpartisan way. Professional educators know this. Only by studying the basics — the system we have, how we got here, why we live where we do — can we muster the critical thinking needed to achieve self-government.
Hopefully, a new push for a balanced social studies education would nudge New York schools toward giving students a practical knowledge of how their rights interact with the common good. What’s more useful than that?
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.