On a recent 13-minute drive home from baseball practice, my 15-year-old explained to me how World War I started.
Mind you, I knew the bit about Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by a Bosnian Serb but I couldn’t have told you why other countries started joining in like it was a brawl at an NHL game.
For most of us, information has a use-it-or-lose-it quality. If we’re not called on in daily life to remember who was president during the Spanish-American War, it might slip our minds.
What stays are concepts. How America’s founders enshrined freedom of speech, religion and the press in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. That America came to England’s aid to defeat Hitler. How Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders used non-violence to force this country to see the shamefulness of the Jim Crow system.
I bring this up because the Allentown School District is considering combining social studies with English in the sixth grade in order to free up time for more math, according to The Morning Call. The district’s math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests drop off after elementary school, which puts it at odds with the federal No Child Left Behind law. The Allentown School Board could vote on the change April 26.
Combining the subjects might sound like it makes sense because so many works of literature can shed light on historical events: Have a class read “Animal Farm” to learn about communism or “To Kill a Mockingbird” to discuss segregation in the South.
But unless those classes are team-taught by an English teacher and a Social Studies teacher, one of the subjects will be slighted. Plus the time on these subjects would be cut in half.
Allentown is in a pickle. The regiment of high stakes standardized testing instituted by No Child Left Behind diminishes the importance of anything not on the PSSAs, including social studies.
While I was researching other efforts to combine social studies and English, I spoke to Corbin Moore, vice president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies and a former history teacher.
Moore said he’s seen the combining of such subjects done successfully but only when they were team-taught.
“It can work, but my fear would be that social studies would get the short end of the stick like it usually does,” Moore said. “Pretty much what gets tested, gets taught. You talk about No Child Left Behind, well …social studies was the subject that got left behind.”
Here’s what gets lost: Creativity – one of the hardest talents to measure -- germinates in our frame of reference. Learning world history is key to expanding that.
Social studies helps us understand who we are as a country and what is worth saving. It reminds Americans from diverse backgrounds, ages and ethnicities of our common bond and shared rights and responsibilities. It teaches us what solutions to problems have – and have not – worked.
Perhaps a clergyman I know said it best: Science and math can tell us how to build gas chambers and opera houses. Social sciences like history teach us which one to build.