Social studies failing our students


To the editor:

(re: “Could better education stem hate?” June 3)

Ethan Stark-Miller reports on efforts to introduce legislation to improve Holocaust education in New York state public schools.

Having been a social studies teacher in New York City and professor of social studies education for 36 years, I read about this effort with  mixed emotions.

Enhanced understanding of the evils of the Holocaust, and of genocide more broadly, ought to be central concerns of social studies education. Unfortunately, New York state — like most states in America — flood the social studies curriculum with too much content to teach.

This flood of content creates extreme difficulties for teachers to teach effectively, and in turn, results in students with extremely thin understanding of the concerns we might want the social studies to address.

I’d support a focus on examining with students how one can or ought to act as citizens, and on the recurring social issues which will impact the lives of students, and which they will have to respond to. One suspects that a key motivation for flooding the curriculum with too much content is that it allows those in authority to avoid difficult conversations about what students need to learn and how students can be taught effectively to become engaged citizens.

Recent political events suggest to me that nationwide social studies has failed miserably. For anyone who cares to look at all closely at the curriculum, it should come as no surprise that a recurrent finding of educational researchers is that students rate social studies as their least-favorite subject in secondary school.

To clean up an observation made in the movie “History Boys,” for students, social studies becomes “one damn thing after another.” In this context, I applaud the effort to make the study of the Holocaust meaningful and effective.

I also believe that to do so will require a rethinking of the curriculum so that the values which we want to guide selection of content are straightforward, and that in light of these values, teachers, researchers and administrators can deliberate about effective ways to achieve agreed upon ends.

In my experience, this required dialogue has not been allowed to happen, and it seems we as a society suffer for it.

John Gunn

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John Gunn,