Ceceile left a comment to my last post in which she talked about the challenge of context when her third grade students are being tested on isolated “identify and define” terms. At best such tests serve two purposes: they work as tests, since it is not hard to figure out if the student checked the box the testmaker had in mind, and, they do give students a very basic grid for identifying differences among various times and places — just the way learning basic vocabulary is one needed step in learning a language. But I suspect the tests are also a kind of concession — they show that we as adults, as a society, don’t know what knowing about Greece, or Rome, or ancient China, or India or Egypt matters. We don’t have a narrative about the growth and development of ideas, civilization, culture where we can use knowledge of a previous time and place to situate young people in the evolution of politics, government, ethics, science, human relations, the arts. In fact we don’t really have a growth model at all.
There is something good in that — the old Rise of the West had all sorts of problem –all too often it was Eurocentric, American-Exceptionalist, pretty much male, etc. etc. It had overtones of the colonialist beliefs mixed with Cold War tub thumping about the virtues of free enterprise. If you went to grad school any time in the past 50 years you learned the dangers of “Whig History” — that old 19th century view that there was this germ of the future great nation in its earliest stages and that the rest of its history was a kind of inevitable almost biological development as the principles of, say, British parliamentary government and then American independence burst into full flower. But if we don’t have a biological metaphor, if we don’t see how one stages builds into another, why does the past matter? Is Greece important because of its columns? Rome for its arches? Even on a third grade level, it would seem to me, we need to make some case about connection and disconnection. How does who they were and what they did connect to us? How is it that change came and we are different from them?
I remember that in one of my elementary school classrooms — maybe 5th grade through this is hazy — they had that very old vertical wall chart showing the ebb and flow of civilization. I’ve seen it as an adult and it was terribly flawed — beginning, I am sure, with Biblical history. But that organic flow, that crest and crash, or cultures made the past important and fluid. I just realized that the crucial flaw in the Indentify and Define testing is — what we really need to teach kids is about Change. What do cultures grow, flourish, decline, evolve, revive — how and why does change come to human civilization? Isn’t that really the only question? Because then the students can imagine change — changes to come, changes they can try to bring about, change from what they know back to what used to be. They live in a world where change is sold to them in ever new technology — this download, this game, this phone, this 3-D, Blu-Ray, immediate delivery of something. But we have the chance to show them about more fundamental change, where the ground beneath their feet may shift.
Maybe that’s the missing mission for Social Studies — explaining change.