Why Do Our Kids Learn Social Studies in School?

. July 15, 2013.

Increasing our students’ proficiency in math, science, and of course reading is a noble cause.  However, it seems that the importance of social studies has gotten short shrift.  This is not a new phenomenon–I can remember the emphasis placed on catching up to the Japanese in math back in the ’80s when I was in high school.  Today it’s the same call to action, just a different country–the Chinese.  I think, for my parents, it was the Germans.  Who’s it going to be next?  The Canadians?

A hard look

Regardless of which nation is on the rise, we must keep improving our competency in all of these subjects–especially social studies.  In social studies, we learn about history, geography, economics, and civics and government.  We also take a hard look at public discourse, decision-making, and citizen involvement.  When you think about it, what good are the other subjects if you don’t know about the world in which you live?  What good is better engineering if you don’t know how and when to use it?

Shaping responsible citizens

The purpose of studying social studies is to make students responsible citizens within their local, state, national, and global communities.  The state of Michigan’s content expectations for grades K-8 describe responsible citizenship as the culmination of what we gain from knowing about those four disciplines.  Think of history, geography, economics, and civics and government as the foundation (but not one of those Old West Side ones with the earthen basements).  From this sturdy base, students gain skills in disciplinary knowledge, thinking skills, democratic values, and citizen participation.  These are the pillars that support the roof of responsible citizenship. 

(The State even has this nifty diagram to help us visualize)


Raising informed voters

As you can see, molding our children into responsible members of the populace is much more than simply telling them to vote when they turn eighteen.  After all, there are plenty of uninformed voters out there (somthing every one of us has probably grumbled about at least one Wednesday after Election Day).

Learning about social studies gives our kids the tools they need to be citizens in a democracy.  At the very least, they gain social understanding.  This means that they have knowledge of the human condition, how it changes, and how it is different across cultures and geographic areas.  They also have a readiness and willingness to take on the responsibilities of citizenship.  They know how to be informed, and know how to make informed decisions for the public good in our republic.  This is something the eggheads call “civic efficacy.”

Taking action

When my daughters learn about public discourse, decision-making, and citizen involvement, they discover the importance of citizen action.  They can learn about certain public policy issues facing our community and how conflicts of core democratic values often lead to differing views of public policy issues (on anything ranging from immigration reform to the City of Ann Arbor’s termination of its leaf removal service).  With this knowledge they see how they can communicate their positions on public issues with reasoned arguments.

Different perspectives

How else do we develop responsible citizens?  (Hint:  by exploring those cool disciplines of social studies.)  When we view our world, we need to look through the various lenses of social studies to get a perspective.

Historical perspective:  We use knowledge of the past to understand our diverse heritage and to inform our civic judgments.  I’m sure many of us have heard the old saying, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Geographic perspective:  Where in the world are we?  It’s great to know the physical characteristics of our country and the world.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like more people out there to know the issues facing the Great Lakes states.  It’s also beneficial to get a feel for the human characteristics of geography, which are man-made features, buildings, cities, and populations.

Economic perspective:  Something we ALL should know more about.  Having knowledge of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services helps our young people make personal, career, and societal decisions about the use of scarce resources.  Where do Silly Bandz come from?  What is a reasonable price to pay?  Does the introduction of Stretchy Bands raise or drive down prices?

Knowing our rights, learning our responsibilities

Civics and Government:  Ah yes.  The puzzle of American democracy.  How does it all fit together?  The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the three branches of government, checks and balances, and popular sovereignty.  We use our knowledge of these things to make decisions regarding our nation, state, and local communities.  Many of us know our rights, but we must also learn to keep our responsibilities.

Effective Social Studies instruction today helps our young people become the more productive and informed citizens of tomorrow.  Yes, math, reading, and science are also important.  But just keep this in mind:  it may take engineering to fix the Stadium bridges, but we’ll never get the funding to begin the project without a knowledge of social studies.

Jim Keen is a freelance writer and life-long Ann Arborite.  He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (14) and Molly (11).  He is the author of Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press).  He can be reached at mya2@annarborfamily.com