What Even Is Social Studies?

As I think back on the subjects I was taught at school, I find no subject more general and peculiar than Social Studies.

Other subjects were pretty much straightforward and drew a clear line and scope: Science was about hard sciences; Mathematics about numbers, angles and their relations; English and Nepali tried to infuse command over the language through grammar and literature (although I would prefer literature to be a separate subject, but of that some other day); computer about getting used to computers. But social studies? Was it just supposed to be about understanding social stuff or was it about having a command over society?Was it supposed to be what we call ‘social sciences’? What was it?

A quick glance tells us that history, geography, economics, civics, and sociology are what that subject tried to cover. Not so straightforward as the subjects above, is it?

I mean, history you can understand. But geography? I vividly remember being taught to look at maps! And at the same time, I also remember studying about the monsoon, weather, climate and all those kinds of things. What were they doing in social studies? If the argument is that they have importance in our social life, then, well each of the sciences and languages do too! Likewise, civics and sociology is understandable. I got my first exposure to the political system of my country through this subject.

As with almost everything, the curriculum I was a part of came from Western Countries. In this regard, it was futile to argue about the subject matters of social studies in Nepali context. There was no point blaming the ‘incapable’, ‘incompetent’ thinkers of this country. I had to blame either the US or UK. And since I am from a ‘developing’ nation, that was futile as well– Anything they did had to be genius!

Apparently, after the American Revolution, as the US began its experiment with self-government, the seeds for what we call “social studies” were planted to ensure the survival of the nation.

But it had its foundations in 1820s Britain with the purpose of promoting social welfare within its territories. Developed properly in the US, it started off by focusing on geography, history and civics. As social sciences gained popularity and relevance towards the turn of the 19th century — the social sciences were increasingly viewed as a vehicle for studying and proposing solutions to the problems resulting from a dynamic and evolving American landscape. This value got embedded into social studies and the subject went ahead with the purpose to ‘educate’ democratic citizens on how to live in the modern world. After this economics found its place and its development is all about modifications on history, geography and civics.

The National Council of Social Studies (American) was founded in 1921 and it engages and supports educators in strengthening and advocating social studies. Its website defines:

Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.

Its vision: A world in which all students are educated and inspired for lifelong inquiry and informed civic action.

Which basically means, it is more a National Studies where each subject matter is looked upon relative to one’s nation. Even International stuff. Otherwise, anthropology, archaeology, geography, philosophy (of all subjects) would want to be somewhere else.

This clears it up for me: social studies isn’t social sciences. The major difference being, social science would want to be more objective in its nature, whereas the purpose of social studies is solely to inject some ‘national sense’ inside the learners head. In the former you could talk about the geopolitical weaknesses of your country, in the latter you had to be proud of it! Therefore, geography fits well inside social studies.

In this way, what I see in social studies is a tool which holds the essence of modern education. While science and mathematics get all the attention and accolades and surely provide the best things in life if done well, social studies quietly lets you know who you are and whom you should dedicate yourself to with all your talents! Telling you whose side you are on.

Proving once again that the things that have the deepest impact are usually ones that are the quietest.

I just hope there won’t be ‘Big Tech Studies’ anytime soon though!



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Adesh Acharya

Adesh Acharya

Author | Mind & Human Study, Direction | Think, See, Experience Mind-Life-World (with me). Subscribe to me via email. More at https://fradesh.com |