A Legislative Threat to Social Studies?
Kevin Krahenbuhl, September 2012
Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should ideally be brief and should be e-mailed (or mailed to Letters to the Editor, Perspectives on History, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889) along with full contact information. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.
To the Editor:
Last year the field of social studies was delivered a devastating blow. The State of California passed legislation, which among other things, has now politicized social studies content to a never-before seen degree. In passing Senate Bill 48, California mandated that all social studies classrooms must make distinct reference to contributions of gays, lesbians, and transgendered groups. This bill has now gone into effect in that state—the largest single purchaser of textbooks, which also impacts what textbook publishers will produce nationwide. If the social studies are to remain a relevant field of education and inquiry then their primary purpose must be an effort to tell the truth of what has, and does occur, not some politicized or comfortable version of it.
Irrespective of one's position on the matter of sexual identity, SB 48 has changed the goal of social studies to politically correct revisionism instead of the pursuit of truth. No social studies teacher should feel bad—nor should any homosexual individual, for that matter—that their contributions have not been portrayed heavily in these courses. There are many reasons they have not, least of which, it is difficult to argue that their sexuality has any significant impact on the outcome of history, the structure/workings of government, or the ways in which the economy functions. Additionally, it is difficult to go back through the historical records and confirm if someone who made significant impacts was GLBTQ—it will likely encourage speculation, which subverts our search for truth. The key point is that if politicians can dictate that we teach minutiae instead of impactful elements of the social studies then we are not educators but rather propagandists.
The National Council for the Social Studies defines social studies as "the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence." However, social studies courses in American public education are often places where students feel they are forced to memorize rote facts without clear reason as to why. This is inaccurate and I am confident that any former student of mine, and thousands of other excellent social studies educators' classes, would confirm that. But now, thanks to the politicization of the social studies, those claims are correct. As educators, we cannot stand for political biases—or political correctness—dictating truth in an effort to skew the facts of the social studies. If we permit this to happen then our field is dead as a legitimate course of inquiry.
The overreaching desires of those politicians in California is well-intentioned, hoping to promote equity, but it is downright destructive to social studies. If truth does not matter—be it a comfortable truth or uncomfortable ones—then the study of the social studies is a waste of time. Educators must stand up and challenge this threat to our field. We must not forget that truth is the pursuit of all inquiry. If educators do not stand up for truth then we don't deserve to call ourselves educators.
Dakota State University
Editor's note: The legislation discussed in this letter amends existing legislation that itself required the inclusion of a number of particular groups of people in social studies instruction. The text of the bill can be found at: http://info.sen.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/sen/sb_0001-0050/sb_48_bill_20110714_chaptered.html.