Thomas D. Fallace: Did the Social Studies Really Replace History in American Secondary Schools?

[THOMAS D. FALLACE is an assistant professor of education at the University of Mary Washington and a lecturer at the University of Virginia.]

In recent years, it has become conventional wisdom among many historians to blame the emergence of the social studies for the demise of history in American secondary schools. This interpretation has not only become the default explanation in the academic discourse, but it has also had an influential effect on educational policy. Historians’ direct role in the drafting of national and state standards and the reform of teaching requirements in many states can be viewed in part as initiatives to wrestle the history curriculum away from social studies educators and place it back in the hands of professional historians. Accompanying this movement has been a greater interest among historians in developing their own empirical research base for improving the teaching and learning of history at all levels.1

The effort by historians to reestablish influence over the American curriculum rests upon a generally accepted historical narrative based on four assertions. The first assertion is that prior to 1916, professional historians set the pattern of courses for most middle and high schools through the recommendations of two influential reports, the 1893 National Educational Association’s (NEA) Committee of Ten, and the 1899 American Historical Association’s (AHA) Committee of Seven. According to this view, through these reports, the writing of textbooks, and their support of the periodical the History Teacher Magazine, professional historians essentially controlled the high school history curriculum in the early part of the century. “If the story of the history curriculum ended in 1915,” Diane Ravitch laments in her account of the transition from history to social studies, “there would be good news about the status of history.”2 The second assertion is that control over the curriculum was usurped by the authors of the 1916 Committee of the Social Studies (CSS) report, a distinct group of educationists who pitted themselves against professional historians. “The programmatic justification for social studies which increasingly drove ‘straight’ history from the schools,” Peter Novick argues, “came from educationists and those like John Dewey, who were allied with them.”3 These educationists, according to this interpretation, were a distinct group of reformers who directly targeted the academic disciplines and established their own curricular pattern. The most notorious of these educationists were David Snedden and Harold Rugg. The “top priority” of Snedden, Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro assert, “was to eliminate history from the curriculum.”4 Rugg, David Moreau argues, “More than any other single educator, . . . would end up creating the modern academic subject of ‘social studies.’”5

The third assertion is that the social studies represented the paradigmatic example of the new, utilitarian curricular pattern formulated by the educationists. Instead of basing the content of courses on the academic disciplines, content was based on the present needs of students and real-life issues. The social sciences were combined with history to address emerging issues and current events. In his history of twentieth-century curriculum reform, David Cohen defined these new social studies courses derisively as “an amalgam of sociology, economics, and political science, with some history thrown in.”6 As E. D. Hirsch further explains, “Like vocational courses, social studies courses were directed ‘to the activities of life’ rather than to the demands of any subject as a logically organized science.’”7 According to these scholars, history courses, characterized by a comprehensive chronological overview of a historical period and location, were replaced by social studies courses, in which disciplinary content was blended together or referred to only when considered relevant to a particular issue.

The fourth assertion is that over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, educationists like Snedden, Rugg, and the authors of the CSS report led a successful campaign to replace straight history with these amalgam social studies courses. “From these reorganizations,” Patricia Albjerg Graham asserts, “came the disappearance of history and government as separate subjects and the emergence of ‘social studies’ which was intended to integrate past and present behavior.”8 According to this interpretation, because of the changing nature of the school population, the academic curriculum was no longer considered appropriate for most high school students. Educationists deliberately and systematically introduced the social studies to increase the holding power of schools and to help students adjust to their appropriate social roles. In History on Trial, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn describe succinctly the conventional interpretation and the four assertions upon which it rests. In a section titled “Historians Take a Walk,” the authors identify the 1916 report as the end of the “golden age of the four-year history curriculum,” which “came to an abrupt end as Community Civics and Problems of Democracy courses became dominant features of the new social studies curriculum, a national pattern in place for the next seventy years.”9

In this article, I challenge each of these assertions. I argue that the transition from history to the social studies at the secondary level was not abrupt and that the social studies reform movement did not directly target discipline-based history. Most important, I demonstrate that, at least through the 1930s, history courses were never fully displaced by amalgamated social studies classes. Therefore, the degree to which history and historians were “replaced” by the social studies and its advocates has been exaggerated in the present literature, and the use of words like, “abrupt,” “disappearance,” and “educationists,” have been misleading.

I will not present a chronological overview of the transition from history to social studies. Such work has already been done by numerous studies, which have tended to focus on the correspondence among professional leaders and/or the ideologies of the compilers of the Committee of Ten, Committee of Seven, and the CSS reports.10 While I will touch on these topics briefly as they relate to the four assertions above, my focus will be on some internal and external factors that have been overlooked, such as teacher qualifications, the content of textbooks, changing course enrollments, and the effects of the First World War. By drawing on local survey and statistic research, I will center my inquiry on the interaction between the professional discourse and actual classroom practice at the ground level. With this article, I seek to challenge the assertion issued most recently by Orrill and Shapiro that “Social studies first appeared . . . in the form of a concentrated effort to reconfigure and diminish the role of history in the American educational enterprise.”11 ...

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