Ross, E. Wayne. (2001). The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities (Rev. Ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Reviewed by Gloria T. Alter

Visiting Scholar (2001-2002), Harvard University Graduate School of Education; Associate Professor, Dept. of Teaching and Learning, Northern Illinois University

"To Understand and Transform the World,"

A Review of The Social Studies Curriculum

The Curriculum Challenge

The Social Studies Curriculum informs and inspires social studies teachers and other educators to improve practice by questioning our assumptions and challenging curricular content and policies which limit and distort reality and possibility. This work reflects perhaps the most important development in the field of social studies--that of examining controversial curricular issues related to democracy and society in a serious way and embracing them as essential, even central, to the field. 

Possibilities for Teaching and Learning

The framework of the book, within which a wide range of topics are addressed, is provided in E. Wayne Ross's introduction and first and last chapters. Readers are initially oriented to a particular understanding of several key concepts: a) the conception of curriculum as student experience, not only formal content, b) the role of teachers as curriculum developers, not mere implementers of the curriculum, and c) the goal of social education as "helping children and young adults to learn to understand and transform their world," not simply to amass a body of information.

A major goal of the book is to "enable teachers and other curriculum workers to better understand and act on the nature, scope, and context of the social studies curriculum concerns in today's schools." Chapters address issues which engage citizens and communities with the politics of curriculum and instruction, as recurrent themes connect the chapters.

The first section of the book focuses on the "big picture" of social studies including curricular debates in historical perspective, the role of history in social studies, and citizenship education as it relates to oppression. In the first chapter, E. Wayne Ross expands the usual history of social studies to include "alternative roots" of the field. These alternative sources and current literature on the topic are especially strong. An analysis of frameworks for understanding the goals of social studies is also highly reflective and carefully prepared. Grassroots movements and the voices of teachers who support inquiry and social criticism find a place in this review. Critical educational limitations related to the control of the curriculum by the states and textbook publishers are raised here as well. 

Michael Whelan addresses the role of history in the social studies curriculum--its natural ability to meaningfully integrate disciplines, its character as essentially interpretive activity, and its nature as an intriguing relationship between the past and a continually evolving present. Cautions are given--that history can be distorted when one's experience to interpret it is insufficient, and knowledge can be acquired for its own sake, or worse still, for domination and oppression. Instructional guidelines are also clearly articulated. This engaging work should spark an interest in the substantive and meaningful learning of history.

Kevin Vinson writes an inspiring and hopeful chapter envisioning citizenship education as a force for opposing oppression. A careful analysis of the social studies and civics standards (including Civitas) reveals that they fail to adequately address the issue of oppression or fully develop a vision for education opposing it. Contemporary critical bodies of literature, examples of structurally oppressive conditions, and Iris Young's "faces of oppression" (exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence) are utilized in this chapter to explore new possibilities for citizenship education. 

The second section addresses social issues with special attention to diversity and inclusion in the context of community. Sandra Mathison with Ross and Vinson critique standards-based educational reform, focusing on stated goals and underlying agendas. They analyze the ways in which conservative and liberal concerns about this issue converge and diverge, and address the misuse of testing and limits that are well-known to measurement and evaluation experts. This material is much needed for community members and parents as well as teachers, given the often misleading presentation of the merits of high-stakes testing. The chapter exposes the reality of who it is that benefits from these practices and at what expense.

Rich Gibson and J. Michael Peterson address whole schooling and reform with reference to the Rouge Forum. Recent reform efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin and a whole schooling research project are discussed. Reform results and principles upon which the projects were based are included. The work provides an empowering example of the personal, public, and political intersections of educational practice. 

David Hursh (multicultural social studies), Jack Nelson and Valerie Pang (racism), Nel Noddings (feminism), and Jane Bernard-Powers (gender) integrate a multitude of excellent insights with practical guidelines. "A central goal of multicultural social studies" identified by Hursh--"to enable students to analyze cultural, political, economic and historical patterns and structures so that students will not only better understand society but also affect it" extends throughout the subsequent works. "Not only race and diversity but gender and class" are central here. Students can learn to see themselves as racialized, classed, and gendered and can examine the worlds of the oppressor and the oppressed through their various identities and in the context of structures of power. They can question and change reality.

Further, content should be more accurately addressed and appropriately contextualized. Multiple interpretations of diverse histories and student realities can empower learners to be more than passive recipients of information. The hypocrisy of the American credo in light of American experience needs to be faced both in society and in the curriculum (Nelson and Pang). Nelson and Pang suggest how history, science, literature and the arts as well as the social sciences can more effectively address racism. They analyze the very problematic construction of "race" and the roles of teachers, professional organizations, and the social studies field itself as well as textbooks in perpetuating racism.

Noddings' writing assesses the state of integration of feminism with social studies education. Although women are seen more frequently in social studies, this does not mean that women's perspectives and realities are being articulated or discussed with students. The need remains for a feminist culture to become a presence in the curriculum. Many substantive ideas are discussed in a way that suggests possibilities for fascinating learning about women and women's concerns.

Jane Bernard-Powers reviews gender equity concerns in historical perspective with an assessment of future needs. The gender-biased social sciences and social studies still leave fundamental assumptions unquestioned. Outside of the classroom, bias and gender coding still prevail, and appropriate attitudes and behaviors toward females is needed. Role modeling, personal contacts, and the use of biography/autobiography are noted as tools for learning. Yet, natural opportunities for questioning traditional practices are often silenced.

The third section focuses on instruction and "an issues-centered curriculum." Topics complement those in the second section: assessment with the work on standards and testing, decolonizing the mind and culturally relevant teaching with multicultural social studies and subsequent chapters, and science and the arts with themes previously introduced.

Sandra Mathison explains assessment concepts in the context of technical, practical, curricular/educational, and political problems. Gloria Ladson-Billings describes culturally relevant teaching as that which "empowers students to critically analyze the society in which they live and to work for social change." Attention is given to the concepts of self and others, social relations, and knowledge. Examples of teaching reveal that knowledge is viewed critically and in continual creation, teachers are passionate about their subject, they attend to prerequisite knowledge or skill needs, and recognize the diverse nature of excellence.

Terrie Epstein presents art as an intellectual process and type of knowledge uniquely useful in social studies. An engaging arts-based curriculum is discussed which allows for a variety of forms to represent historical knowledge and to be employed in constructing knowledge. Stephen Fleury's in-depth discussion of science analyzes the creation and use of knowledge especially as it relates to social studies and as political contexts influence their practice historically and currently. Fleury calls for "a more emancipatory form of social knowledge in social studies" and for problem-posing and critical-constructivist pedagogical approaches to citizenship development.

Ronald Evans notes the political challenges to an issues-centered approach to social studies, reiterating battles over whose knowledge (disciplines) and practices (cultural transmission versus social criticism) are of most worth. Interdisciplinary approaches support the types of social inquiry necessary to fulfill the goal of understanding and transforming the world, as "inquiry into any real world matter related to citizenship is naturally holistic" (Evans). 

Real world perspectives are inescapably global, as well. Merry Merryfield and Binaya Subedi present strategies for the development of a true global citizenship that confront nationalistic biases and colonialistic assumptions. The "interaction of power, culture, and knowledge construction" is revealed when students are exposed to alternative explanations of reality, experience alternative realities, and through this develop the ability to see multiple perspectives and challenge unsupported assumptions. 

Overcoming Curricular Problems

The Social Studies Curriculumhelps to bring integrity to the field and develop it as a viable force for social change. The concluding chapter by E. Wayne Ross examines the readings in light of critical perspectives on democracy, democratic ideals, and democratic education. This text should contribute to a more democratic social studies teacher education, integrating social justice issues within the context of the curriculum. 


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