Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Amnesiac Nation

Some time ago I passed on word that Nevada was not funding training for Social Studies teachers. Well from the East Coast here comes word of what happens as that kind of thinking extends into schools. A town in Massachusetts decided last spring that, since Social Studies is not tested (in a way that has an impact on federal funding), and since the town is strapped for cash, it was no longer going to pay for middle school Social Studies teachers. Instead, every teacher of another subject on that grade level would double up for one Social Studies class — in other words, the teachers would be untrained, overburdened, tied to the textbooks, and the students — who are smart, and alert to what really matters, would add together the flat classes with the lack of tests to realize that the whole subject did not matter.

This is middle school — we are no longer talking about unfortunate elementary school classes that squeeze a unit on the local Indians and the Founding Fathers, on Thanksgiving and then MLK, amidst units on geology, map reading, or weather. Middle school means kids bursting with the ability to think, to do research, to learn, and, most of all, to question — to look for truths beyond the nostrums adults want to pass along. The entire booming field of YA fiction is built on awareness of those alert, active minds. And we decide to remove any vital sense of our history, values, ideas, conflicts, tragedies from those minds.

This is totally unacceptable. It is evidence of the kind of thinking that Diane Ravitch exposes and condemns in the current New York Review of Books, We must speak up and fight against that unholy alliance: no tests, no money, no training, no teachers, no interest from students — and we are a people without a past, an amnesiac nation. That cannot be the heritage we leave — we cannot lobotomize our students, cut out the part of their brains that learns from history.

Fortunately, that Massachusetts town got an anonymous donation and scrapped together enough money to keep one Social Studies teacher…this year.
Next year? We all better watch. And Friday I will bring some better news — a public school in NYC doing its best to make Social Studies come alive.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Teaching a subject one is not trained in or not even interested in robs everyone. During WWII, some NYC schools assigned teachers of other subjects to teach math, and I, who loved math (and English too), was often ahead of the teacher and soon lost interest, because there was no challenge.

    The same thing happened post-Sputnik when the US had difficulty recruiting math teachers and students were severely shortchanged. And, because of budget decisions, art & music programs were reduced or destroyed.

    Our attitude toward expertise, intellectual effort, and excellence seems to be damaged.As for amnesia, American’s focus on the present is vacuous, because it lacks resonance and allusive connections to the past.” Never forget” is used in another context, but it can be used for this subject, also.

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    This is a widespread phenomenon. Because social studies is not tested, it is not taught or it is–at best–taught haphazardly. My undergraduate students who are preparing to be elementary school teachers get the word right away. Social studies is not important. We don’t have to worry about it. While I, instead, emphasize the need for teachers to prepare thoughtful citizens and stimulate children’s natural curiosity about their history, they get a frighteningly different message from the administrators and teachers in the field. How is it possible that teachers are simply given no time to prepare thoughtful decision makers who know about their history and the broader global context? How can this not be considered important? It’s shameful.