Not your Mom's sixth-grade "social studies"
My daughter is currently on the honor roll at one of the top public middle schools in our state. Her most challenging course right now is an advanced social studies class giving an overview of the geography and a smattering of the culture and history of the various countries and regions of the world. She is certainly learning more about such things (and memorizing more countries and maps) than I ever learned in school, let alone in sixth grade.
Happily, she is very fortunate to have a remarkably energetic and rigorous teacher who is also teaching the class college-prep study habits and note-taking skills, while offering animated lectures and lots of additional material in class to supplement the dud of a textbook.
It is true what they say about assigned social studies textbooks. They make good doorstops. They are produced by committees whose credentials evidently exceed their creativity. If you pick one up and look through it, it is obvious that such books are meant to attain goals that are only secondarily educational, for there is little within such texts to invite the reader to sit down and learn. They are visually so disjointed and cluttered with poorly designed graphic interruptions as to be almost unreadable.
Instead, the primary goals of such abominations of visual and organizational chaos, namby-pamby condensations of "facts" to be memorized, and over-arching political correctness are to a) make money and reputations for the many levels of bureaucrats and publishing employees involved and b) to fulfill state educational mandates with as little controversy as possible.
I shudder to think what it must be like to be a kid stuck in a social studies class without an intelligent and talented teacher working to make the subjects more appealing.
Anyway, I sat down this weekend with my daughter to help her study for her upcoming test on the unit she had just covered in school: Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania. Since I have been to Sydney and the South Island of New Zealand, I thought that maybe some personal observations or some historical context I might relay could make the study of these places more appealing to her.
First we got out our world globe, and found the objects of our discussion. I had never really studied the islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia--have you? My own education had huge gaps in it when it comes to world geography. As an adult, I now find it exciting to see where all these places are whose names have been accumulating in my brain for fifty years through other contexts: the islands contended for in World War II, the islands mentioned in Broadway musicals, Herman Melville novels, Mutiny on the Bounty, and PBS and National Geographic specials, or visited by honeymooners, movie stars and crews, Paul Gauguin, Darwin, and Captain Cook. Did you know New England whaling ships sailed these islands of the "South Seas"? Did you know there is a Starbuck Island? Did you know where Easter Island is? And do you know where Guam is, home of people who vote in our own Presidential primaries? Cool!
My daughter had to tear me away from fawning over the pretty globe so we could get some studying done. She had brought her social studies doorstop/textbook, and I had brought my favorite textbook: What Your 6th Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good Sixth-Grade Education edited by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (from the Core Knowledge Series).
I read first. Of course, you've got to start with "The British Empire" (pages 116-117) if you're going to discuss Australia and New Zealand. And you need to set the stage of how the Industrial Revolution got underway first in England, which ultimately gave an advantage to it and its neighboring countries, Scotland and Wales, who all joined together to form Great Britain in 1707. Then you've got to tell about how Britain became the most prosperous and powerful country in Europe as the Spanish Armada was defeated and Britain began to accumulate many faraway colonies. You've got to tell about how, at the end of the 1800's, almost one-fourth of the human race lived under the British flag, and it was famously said that "the sun never set on the British empire."
My daughter had never heard of any of this. Even "the Spanish Armada" didn't ring any bells.
Guess we should have been studying together sooner.
Next we learned about "Queen Victoria" (pages 117-118, with a nice, "We are not amused!" photo), who ruled Great Britain as its indominable monarch for 64 years, from 1837 to 1901, the "Victorian Age" being the greatest years of the British empire. We learned about the German Prince Albert, her beloved consort, and her forty years of mourning after his death. We learned about the "stuffiness" and self-righteous attitude that some people characterize as the main qualities of the Victorian Age, and how "the people who built the British empire" were "serious, determined, and hardworking" and how they were very sure of themselves, thinking that, as Englishmen, "they knew better than anyone else how things should be done. They thought that they could run countries all over the world better than the people who already lived in those countries."
This was a fair evaluation, I thought. My daughter had never heard of any of this, and had never heard of Queen Victoria, let alone Prince Albert.
Next I read her the discussion of "British Imperialism" (pages 118-119), which told in a few paragraphs, with a quote from Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden," the good and the bad of the British empire's conquering and improving, albeit with certain racist and pecuniary motives, its colonies around the globe. It told about how "many English people felt it was Britain's destiny to rule over much of the world and that Britain had the right to rule because of its superior culture. People who felt this way usually had the racist idea that Africans and Asians were 'inferior' to Europeans" and that by such a "degrading message . . . imperialists caused deep anger and resentment that persist to this day."
I thought this was an admirably straight-forward and honest summary distilled down into four simple paragraphs any 12-year-old could understand. My daughter was learning, for the first time, the complicated story of the modern development of the civilized world.
Finally I read the section on "The British in Australia" (pages 122-123). It told the story of a vast, empty country that seemed perfect to Britain for use as a penal colony. It told of how a trickle of adventurous free settlers, who often couldn't afford passage back to England, began to establish communities, and how immigrants began flooding in after gold was discovered in the 1850's. And it talked about how the British acted upon the native aborigine population, again, most often with racist and imperialist motives and effect.
It has always seemed to me that, as with getting to know people, you've got to know the story of a place to even begin to know what's going on there. It seems to me, as an adult who now loves reading and learning history, that if you don't have a good idea of a place's story, its historical context and roots, you don't really know much of anything. Besides which, understanding a place's story, of course including its true history, makes its study more interesting and hence it is easier to memorize the facts and names you must know to pass an ordinary school test.
Now my daughter pulled out her social studies textbook and began reading aloud to me the introduction to the chapter on Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania:
Human-Environment Interaction: When Europeans first came to Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania, the landscape had been largely unchanged for tens of thousands of years. In Australia and New Zealand, the settlers cleared the forests to provide land for farming and housing.
This human activity has had some unexpected consequences on the environment. In Australia, for example, more than 40 percent of the country's forests have been destroyed. Over-cultivation of this land has depleted the soil of valuable nutrients. Over-irrigation has resulted in too high a level of salt in the soil. As you can see above, very few plants are able to grow in salty soil.
What do you think? What do immigrants risk by changing an environment too quickly after settling in it?
How might the people of Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania have benefited if the settlers had balanced development with environmental concerns?
Is anybody else besides me struck by what an odd introduction this is to this part of the world? Show of hands--would anybody prior to the 1990's pick an environmental angle (and European immigrants as the whipping boys) as the way to introduce children to Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific?
This text appears next to a uncaptioned photo featuring a close-up view of a dried-up desert plant near what looks like one of Australia's most famous landmarks, Ayers Rock, or Uluru. Or it could be a photo from one of the many deserts in Australia--Great Victoria desert (647,000 km2), Great Sandy desert (400,000 km2), Simpson desert (145,000 km2), Sturt desert (130,000 km2), Gibson desert--deserts not caused by man, but by lack of rainfall. We'll never know from this textbook, which obviously wants to start out, right off the bat, with the idea that heedless and stupid "European immigrants" are most remarkable in this area's history for killing plants and raping a hitherto virginally ideal environment.
Well, that's one way to look at it.
The next nine pages in my daughter's textbook purported to cover the history, governments, economies, and cultures of Australia, New Zealand and the islands. We learned about how and when the original inhabitants of these places, including the aborigines and the Maori, arrived, which was interesting news to me, reflecting the latest scientific discoveries of human migration. We heard brief mention of European explorations for spices, Europeans bringing smallpox to infect the natives, and the Treaty of Waitangi (and how "Europeans" are still treating native peoples unfairly today). We learned about the Commonwealth of Nations, copra, matrilineal and patralineal societies, Charlie Perkins, the "Aborigine Martin Luther King," and Cathy Freeman, Aborigine athlete and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We learned a smattering of "facts" such as that many Asians live in the capital of New Zealand, Wellington. We skipped the sideline boxes urging us to tackle such chores as "Imagine that you were a Maori inhabitant of New Zealand. Write a dialogue between you and one of the European settlers."
Since this textbook does not mention that the Maori were cannibals before the British missionaries arrived, it leaves the children at a disadvantage in constructing a really lively imaginary dialogue.
Again, the presentation of this material, even apart from its political slant, is so disjointed and chaotic that I can read it several times and still not be able to tell you a coherent narrative about any of it. How are children taught in this way ever to learn to write essays on themes, ideas, or historical developments? Such textbooks only urge memorization (for the moment) of vocabulary words and faddish prejudices to be picked out on multiple choice or true-false tests. My daughter proved this when she revealed she didn't know how to pronounce or spell (and hadn't really read) the word "aborigine." She said she didn't need to know it--she just needed to remember that the "M-word" were the New Zealand natives and the Australian natives were the "a-word," good enough to differentiate on the expected multiple-choice test.
I told her she did need to learn "Maori" and "aborigine," and made her do it.
In my daughter's textbook there is no mention of the British Empire, Queen Victoria, the penal colonies of Australia and Tasmania (the dreaded Van Dieman's Land sung of by the Irish Rovers), the Yankee whaling ships, the discovery of Australian gold hard on the heels of the California gold rush, or any other historical context explaining the important issues of racism, mercantilism, exploration, colonization, or imperialism in a frank or fair manner. There is no real discussion of what motivated the "European" individuals to adventure the South Seas or settle as pioneers in a land so foreign from "jolly old England." There is no discussion of what they met when they met the Maori and the aborigine peoples, other than that big implied theme of "white man bad, natives good."
I found it astonishing to discover the extent to which our state is currently, in place of teaching historical facts, preaching to our children, so baldly and so clumsily, the patronizing racism of the "Noble Savage" philosophy Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized in the 1750's.
The saddest part about all of this is the disservice this "educational" textbook does to the vivid and fascinating true stories of these lands and these unique people.
Or maybe the saddest part about all of this is what a stunted and slanted education such textbooks aim to give to our kids.
I'm not surprised my daughter finds little joy in studying "social studies." I guess she'll have to wait until she's older and out of the clutches of the "social studies" curriculum to discover the true joys of studying history. In the meantime, I see my homeschooling attempts are a necessary and important supplement to her public school education.
I don't resent that I find it necessary to spend such "teaching moments" with my daughter; in fact, she and I enjoy pooling our resources and learning about the world together. My presenting additional and alternate viewpoints to what her textbook contains helps her to become a critical thinker, which is what education is all about.
But I do feel the urge to caution other parents to be aware that if they leave the education of their children entirely in the hands of the public schools, no matter how "good" the public schools may seem, they may find themselves dismayed by the final results.
UPDATE: Diane Ravitch's book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, is must-reading for parents, as she offers an insider's view of the process of textbook vetting. When a Clinton education appointee is shocked, you know something bad must be happening:
The bias and sensitivity reviews work with assumptions that have the inevitable effect of stripping away everything that is potentially thought-provoking and colorful from the texts that children encounter. These assumptions narrow what children are exposed to, at least on tests and in textbooks. Parents, teachers, and the public need to be aware of these assumptions and the reasoning process behind them, because they are reducing the curriculum in the schools to bland pabulum....
...the concept of bias has become detached from its original meaning and has been redefined into assumptions that defy common sense.