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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


The other night it was my turn to read to my about to be 10 year old son, but we are between books and I’d been spending all day working on J. Edgar Hoover so I decided to talk to Sasha a bit about what I’d be reading and thinking about. I was talking about the fact that Hoover never married and Sasha said “of course he didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t want anything to take away from his work.” While of course there are questions about Hoover’s feelings for men, there was something so sane about about what Sasha said — Hoover was married to his work. He wanted companions, he wanted lunch partners, he wanted a close friend to vacation with, but work was his love, and any personal relationship that exerted emotional demands would have felt like a subtraction to him. That rich exchange made me think about how we teach social studies — we start with the old and really old stuff — Native American, early colonial US; or, Fertile Crescent, Egypt, China, Indus Valley, Greece, Rome — kids only reach the recent past, well, maybe never. Yes there is a unit on the Holocaust, but when do they get to use their knowledge of contemporary life to understand the past?

What if in 5th grade, 6th grade — as kids are emerging from childhood, as they develop the psychological acuity of the tween years, as they are sharpening their social conscience — we started them into history with the second half of the 20th century? cold war, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, fall of communism, ecology — begin where history matters. Then, once they see that there is a value in understanding the past, once they have begun to understand the process of research, investigation, and writing, then we go way back? Why do we begin with ancient history?

I suspect that our impulse to start way back is a lingering artifact of what history used to be. Histories were national — you learned (or wrote about) the history of the US or England or France to explain its greatness, its unique culture and values (which is still part of how we define Social Studies). You needed the long run up because supposedly in those ancient origins was some explanation of the roots of Western Civilization, or American Democracy or The Glory that is France. But in our multicultural and globalized world (and classrooms) we no longer have that faith that a distinct path has led to a unique present. We try to teach kids all and everything, starting way back, with no clear goal. Teachers and students alike are overwhelmed and not sure what they are doing and why. Why not begin with interest, begin with a world kids can understand — their recent past — sharpen their skills there, then launch into the real study of the past. We’d bring it all together again in a few years — kids would reach the 20th century again, having come the long route, and see how their understandings had changed, what they had learned. But we launch them by asking questions about recent and recognizable figures — like the bachelor life of Mr. Hoover


  1. Joy Wright says:

    This makes so much sense to me. I have seen Social Studies get pushed back so often because even the teacher does not really see the relevance to all of the “tested” material that has to be taught. If we could get kids fired up about some history to which they really connect it would make all of the difference.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    What if we linked history and science, so you started back into history in 5th grade learning about the invention of the computer, the first games, the story behind the internet — engage kids with the history of the technology they use, show how new and different their world is, trace where that came from, then go backwards. I bet kids would see why they are studying history because it is their history, then go into big themes and the long past.