Social studies follies

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The cumbersome, inscrutable title is the first clue that something is not right: “Vision for the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3): Framework for Inquiry in Social Studies State Standards.”

Welcome to the social studies follies. We might thank the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) for ensuring—so far, anyway—that this jumble is not portrayed as “national standards” for social studies. Instead, it’s the beginning of a “framework” for states intending to re-think their own academic standards in social studies, a hodge-podge part of the K-12 curriculum.

It’s not the actual framework, however. That is promised for sometime next year. What we have today is a six-page “vision” of a “framework for inquiry,” whatever the heck that is supposed to mean. (See also Catherine Gewertz’s perspective in Education Week.)

But this preview document supplies reason to be plenty alarmed about what lies ahead. The second clue is implicit in its opening paragraphs:

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, currently under development, will ultimately focus on the disciplinary and multidisciplinary concepts and practices that make up the process of investigation, analysis, and explanation which will be informative to states interested in upgrading their social studies standards. It will include descriptions of the structure and tools of the disciplines (civics, economics, geography, and history) as well as the habits of mind common in those disciplines. The C3 Framework will also include an inquiry arc—a set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content. This framing and background for standards development to be covered in C3 all point to the states’ collective interest in students using the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history as they develop questions and plan investigations; apply disciplinary concepts and tools; gather, evaluate, and use evidence; and work collaboratively and communicate their conclusions.
The C3 Framework will focus primarily on inquiry and concepts, and will guide — not prescribe — the content necessary for a rigorous social studies program. CCSSO recognizes the critical importance of content to the disciplines within social studies and supports individual state leadership in selecting the appropriate and relevant content.

Did you spot the missing words? I’ll bet you did. They are the verb “know” and the noun “knowledge.” As best one can tell, the present social studies project cares not a whit about whether kids end up with any of the familiar “knowledge” of social studies. “What is the Declaration of Independence?” “What does the Bill of Rights do?” “What is the Emancipation Proclamation?” “When was World War I, why was it fought, who won, and what were the consequences?” “How many senators does your state have and what are their names?” “Where is Taiwan? Why is Burma called Myanmar?” “What was the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and what were its effects on China and its people?” And on and on and on.

We do a lousy job of imparting that kind of information to our students today. If the drafters of this “vision” have their way, we’ll do even worse tomorrow.

Read those two grafs again. Try to find the words “know” or “knowledge.” They’re MIA. Yes, the CCSSO hedges its bets by declaring its own commitment to “content.” Well and good. But what about the “known experts” (sic)—unnamed, albeit “known”—who are drafting this “vision”? What do you suppose is their view of “content,” let alone “knowledge?” Dim, I’m pretty sure.

This could turn out to be simply awful. Somehow, it feels even worse in the week that we observe Thanksgiving.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. At Fordham, he is now Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus. He’s also a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Finn served as Fordham’s President from 1997 to 2014, after many earlier roles in education, academe and government. From 1999 until 2002, he was John M.…

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