For a Social Studies Education That Counts

Dr. Rich Gibson

Director of International Social Studies Education
Wayne State University
Printed in the Michigan Social Studies Journal, 1997, volume 9 number 1

Last December, I toured some Detroit and suburban

schools. My plan was to visit classes of friends and students, to reconnect with the classes I attended and taught many years ago in this, my hometown. In a Detroit high school, I met a with a group of students and asked them about their vision of the future.

One student replied quickly, heatedly, " Whatda you mean future?"

"What do you think you want to be doing, say, at the turn of the century?"

"What's up with that? My future is to get as much stuff as I can--RIGHT NOW."


"We all know we aren't gonna make twenty-one".

Thinking, "...adolescent hyperbole", I asked the other students if she spoke for the group. They confirmed her position and added plenty of chapters and verses about their chances for survival. After class, their veteran teacher affirmed the sincerity behind the young woman's comments and added, "Actually, I don't want to live in the world these kids will inherit. She wasn't entirely wrong, you know."

In a suburban school not far from the 8 Mile Road moat which separates mostly African-American Detroit from suburbia, things were a bit different. In a college-bound history class, I met a kid who said, "The future is more of the same trash. More school."

Which trash is that?

"Bogus classes and tests. College. Then managing a Mickey D." His comments were uproariously ratified: school is rubbish. After class, their teacher gently pointed to a Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) test, "We get a lot of chatter about teacher-empowerment, professionalism, and student-centered classrooms. Then we get more standardized tests, bigger classes, and the blame for bad scores. Hell, we're clerks. Luckily we can still close our doors."

I spent the winter in Grenada, a laboratory of the struggle between colonialism and impudent nationalism. Colonialism won the battle, a massive invasion of a country smaller than Kalamazoo. The nationalists, many of the brightest people in the country, still languish in a 17th century jail. Indeed. colonialism won so overwhelmingly; it lost interest. The U.S. pulled its ambassador and left behind a second-tier diplomat to watch the economy unravel. Many of the Grenadian schools look a lot like Detroit's.

Two comments stand out from my visit to Grenadian schools. One came from a social studies teacher, "There's no hope here. None. It makes no difference what we do, and that goes for everyone. The only hope for people here is to leave--and never come back." The second came from a student in a social studies class of 40+ boys in Grenada's top secondary school. He had listened sullenly in the back of the classroom and only responded when his teacher chided him as the one who always talked for the class but fell silent in the presence of a foreigner. "When is the U.S. going to collapse so we can do something with our lives?"

Leaving the Detroit airport on my return from Grenada I switched on the radio. There came Rush Limbaugh, "I'm glad I'm old. I wouldn't want to live too far into the 21st century".

These little anecdotes are silhouettes of key issues facing teachers: hopelessness, alienation, metronomeism (as long as I'm a monk I'll toll the bell), unfocused resistance. I think this is, in abbreviated form, a fair depiction of the ideas, if not the material forces, driving much of our environment.

In the U.S., teachers are at the center of society, among the last people with regular jobs and health benefits. Schools are now the centrifugal point of the social system, replacing industrial work places, now often out-sourced to the third world. More than ever, what teachers do counts. How we teach, what we teach, whether we can image hope in a mean world; all this questions whether or not we can involve people in the comprehension and transformation of reality. If not, we reinvest in irrationalism and hopelessness, organized decay.

In the social studies we sometimes argue: should we teach history, geography, politics, economics, as distinct disciplines? Distinct from what? Each other--or life? What worries me is not so much that these are interrelated disciplines or whether they're enveloped by social studies or split apart, but they are too frequently taken up as if they stood apart from the students and teachers, as if they were dogmas rather than human creations. Even in integrated social studies classes we often teach as if these disciplines somehow are outside or above the key issues of human life: the struggle for production, reproduction and sexuality, and the construction of rational knowledge. These are the "why's" of any study. These three elements underpin the assembly of a reasonable standpoint, a student's critical grasp of where she is and her options for personal or collective action. In brief, you should know this stuff because you can better understand your life, your standpoint, and you can make change. You can become more powerful and, hence, rationally hopeful.

We should study work and production. The centrality of labor is denied and denigrated in many U.S. classrooms--and certainly in textbooks. When the universal commonality of the need to work is impugned or set aside, it is possible to make all kinds of nonsensical assumptions about culture. Culture, language, and knowledge interact with labor, enrich labor; but they do not exist without the necessary socializing nature of work.

It is trifling to celebrate cultural difference in a society whose animating practice is class inequality. What is significant is to seek the origins of inequality and to explore the potential commonalities and differences that sweep through boundaries of class, race, and sex. But, in most schools, the ABC's are: Anything But Class. This leads to multi-culturalism serving as a thin veil for witless nationalism. (It's fun to discover what people in different cultures eat. It's significant to investigate how they get the food, who has it. and what boundaries separate the stout and the hungry). In classrooms in communities where there is no work, we should ask, "Why not?", and study movements of the unemployed--or campaigns to shorten the work week. Where people do have jobs, we might ask: How is production carried on? How has this changed? Who does the work? Who governs the work place? Who gains? Why? What is the relationship of developing production and social life? Are we more united, or more torn apart?

We should wonder about students' sexuality, a cardinal factor in any classroom, and be curious as to the links between rising demands for abstinence and, not simply sexually transmitted diseases, but political economy---which clearly has historical and geographic roots. How can we historicize sexuality--as a system of desire, pleasure, and reproduction? Are there links between traditional notions of the family, the fear of sexual pleasure, and calls to defend the motherland for the "Little Father"? What comprises the civics of abstinence, written so guardedly into the new welfare bill? If this talk is taboo--how come? There is no connecting with adolescence if we are not directly inquiring into the interactions of sexuality, curiosity, and testing knowledge itself.

We need to investigate the construction of knowledge and wonder about its relationship to our classrooms. The pillars of a good education rest on a thorough-going analysis of the students, the community, and the educator herself--armed with a paradigm that can make sense of subject matter---all wrapped up in a community of trust, freedom, critique, risk, and rigor. How does that mesh with grades, standardized exams, tracking, and booming class counts? How does group work fit into the Michigan's standardized High School Proficiency Test--the one most kids still fail? How does the idealized classroom meet the reality? Where does imagination and leaps of understanding meet memorization and multiple choice anxiety?

More significantly, how can we make sense of the material world in a classroom? How can we understand how things change? Is change systematic? Or should we deny the primacy of the material world and suggest that things are immutable--and incoherent? Where do we put that on the test?

How might questions of production, sexuality, and the construction of rationality be linked in a classroom? More to the point: what is the possibility to make these significant ties when the prevailing trends in schools rob students of the key commodity--time--necessary to make more interesting connections? For example, are there not fascinating potential intersections between developing the official standardized wisdom of state exams, the fear of sex, and the denial of production relationships? When the economics test begins with the assumption that the central life issue is the contradiction of consumption and scarcity; is this not a Lilliputian beginning point, utterly disjointed from real human relationships rising from the necessity to work? In the official framework, labor, sex, and testing ideas are relegated, at best, to peripheral status.

Simply making an inquiry into these fundamental issues in most classrooms is partisan business--as is the appearance of neutrality that comes from not doing so. This kind of pedagogy clashes with the irrationalism of most U.S. curricula which, at best, say one paradigm is as good as the next (depending, in the post-modernist sense, on where one shops), or, at worst, pander to the lowest common denominators of patriotism. But, as a partisan business, there is risk. How can teachers keep their early ideals and still teach?

Our students, and many of their parents, are superior to their circumstances. Most do not know it. Many of them have internalized perfectly rational anger. In a clinical sense, they are depressed. Part of the students' anger comes from the bureaucratization of school; disjointed purposeless classes in which too many kids and teachers look busy and, sometimes with a wink, process established formal non-sense which has nothing to do with grasping or changing the world. Some of the parents' anger comes from a tax system which has shifted the burden of school costs to the backs of working people---and a curriculum which denies their dignity. Everyone has reason to be angry about the segregation of schools and curricula along lines of, first, class, then race, and then sex. This separation of people by superficial categories, reinforced by superficial standardized knowledge and tests, rubs against the real tendency of humanity to become more and more social--a process initiated in labor.

In short, there are sides to be taken in teaching because teaching is part of a partisan world. Schools are the canaries in the mine for any society, measuring the amount of freedom. The more class time is sapped by distant authorities demanding common exams, the more class size is pumped by economic inequities; the more the school canary gags. But freedom is always the product of tension, those who need it and those who cannot gain from it. Teachers need freedom in school. They can gain freedom through solidarity forged, not in the missionary sense of doing for, but in the egalitarian sense of doing with for a common interest. Given the pivotal position of teachers in our context, the choices teachers make will not merely reflect back on them, but are likely to influence events more than ever before.

There are a variety of land mines here. People in pacified areas often become instruments of their own oppression. They think with the minds of their enemies and claim those thoughts as their own. They confuse liberation with skills of obedience. High MEAP scores will make you free. The union will take care of this. Actually, educators unions became the ossified churches of the profession, full of fat monks on the tithe, guarding the boundaries of knowledge and entry into the holy heights of certification, promises of better days on retirement, and proposals for alliances with elites and politicians. Teachers are told their natural allies are in the business community and in the electoral system. This is wrong. Teachers who seek to make change, who want to exert some control over their work and its products--who want to champion their ideals and still teach--must look to solidarity with parents and children--especially those in the poor and working classes--as the source of their power, to community action as the tactic, and to love, freedom, democracy, and equality as the honest motive.

School workers (teachers, media specialists, counselors, social workers, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.) create value collectively. No one of us, thankfully, teaches a child alone. But only concerted organizational unity and struggle from the bottom up can make it possible for teachers (and kids) to control what they create.

The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and most of what the right-wing calls the "education establishment", now clings to a craft union approach which sees an identity of interest with employers (note the common calls for standardized tests) and tries to limit entry to school work through long apprenticeships and skewed entrance exams which measure mostly class and race. The effect of this tact is to isolate teachers from natural allies, especially working class children and parents. No amount of success on a standardized exam, no formal certification procedures for educators, will offset the impending grim reality of a 90% white and middle class teaching force facing a student body that is 51% working class children of color. Yet that is the time bomb ticking for the twenty-first century.

There is historical precedent for partisan action. The effort for the ability to struggle for the truth in decent surroundings isn't new. Margaret Haley, early in this century, led battles which united teachers, students, and mostly working class parents around issues of teacher control of the curriculum, class size, and progressive taxation. She stood for hope and generated it. She built caucuses in her unions around a positive and hopeful vision that addressed how people teach, what is taught, under what conditions, and who must pay. She often won. We can too. The prescription for depression and hopelessness is action, just as the test of knowledge is not resolved by the textbook answer sheet but in social practice. It's a social study worth studying, right now, with patient urgency.

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