Published Date

January 1, 1944

From American History in Schools and Colleges (1944)

History was long regarded as the principal school subject in the field of human relationships. Increased attention to geography, the gradual separation of civics from history, and the introduction of sociology and economics into school programs made it necessary to think in terms of a group of social studies instead of the single subject of history. The rise of the field of the social studies has caused some uneasiness as to its significance and as to its effects upon the study of history. This discussion is designed to clarify the term and restate the relationship of history to the other social studies.


A. Meaning of the Term “Social Studies”

The term “social studies” has been misunderstood and misused both within and outside the teaching profession. The Committee accepts the obligation and responsibility of clarifying its meaning.

Outside the teaching profession the term “social studies” has been used as a label for “contemporary problems,” as a term implying socialistic or reformist purposes, as relating to social service and social welfare, as an antonym to history, and as a label for a method of teaching. These uses of the term are erroneous.

Within the teaching profession the term has had a variety of uses. It has been used to designate a combination of two or more subjects dealing with human relationships and to designate a combination of the social studies exclusive of history. The term has also been applied to arithmetic, physics, and other subjects in order to stress their social aspects or their values to society. The degree to which each of these uses is valid will become apparent in the following discussion.

Throughout the period from about 1850 to about 1910, history, civics, and geography were generally regarded as rather sharply differentiated subjects. No common interest brought them together. Late in the nineteenth century economics won a place in the curriculum, and early in the present century sociology began to appear in school programs. Thus the social elements in the curriculum have constantly increased.

Teachers and scholars began to realize that these five subjects—history, geography, civics, economics, and sociology—were closely related. All of them deal with human relationships: Geography describes man’s relations to the earth; civics or government explains society’s attempts to control individuals through organized states; economics describes and analyzes man’s efforts to make a living; and sociology describes various kinds of group living. History is the story of whatever man has done, with emphasis upon institutional and group activities. Thus in a sense history is the most inclusive and pervasive of the social studies and partakes of the nature of each of the others when it records activities which fall within their scope.

Since all these subjects center their attention upon man and his relationships, it is a matter of convenience to group them under some general term. The over-all term for the subjects of instruction which stress human relationships is social studies. The social studies constitute a field and not a subject, a federation of subjects and not a unified discipline.

Schools have programs of social studies and teachers are employed to teach social studies, but-in the classroom they teach civics or history or sociology or some topic which draws materials from one or more of the other social studies subjects. Very seldom does a teacher try to teach the whole field as a single course, but he tries constantly to show the interrelations of the subjects within the field.

There is nothing unusual about grouping subjects into fields. The word “science” indicates such subjects as biology, botany, physics, and chemistry. “Mathematics” includes arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The word “literature” or “English” is used to include the study of grammar, composition, history of literature, and the English classics. The term “social studies” is used in a similar manner to designate subjects which stress human relationships. It implies no particular type of organization, social philosophy, or educational theory. It is a useful and practical term, as devoid of emotion and as general in its connotation as the word “science” or “mathematics.” It is a convenient, inclusive designation.

Although the term “social studies” includes primarily history, geography, civics, economics, and sociology, it also deals with materials from other subjects. Thus some elements of ethics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, art, literature, and other subjects are included in various courses in the social studies. Even if these subjects are not all taught in the schools under their titles, they make their contributions to the social studies. However, since art and literature are primarily concerned with individuals rather than with groups, while ethics, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology seldom appear in school curriculums, the term “social studies” usually describes only the subjects listed above.

The social studies field is distinguished from other fields by the fact that its content is focused upon human beings and their interrelationships. All subjects have social utility, but that does not place them within the field of the social studies. Arithmetic has social value, but its content is not centered upon human beings. Therefore, the social studies are those subjects in which the content as well as the purpose is focused upon human beings.

Furthermore, the term “social studies” refers primarily to those subjects concerning human relationships which are organized for instructional purposes. Whether history at the college or graduate or research level is a social study, a social science, or a humanity may be a matter of debate. Regardless of this question, the fact is that the social studies at the elementary and high-school levels do serve instructional purposes. No one expects an elementary textbook in geography or a high-school history to be an original contribution to knowledge; its primary purpose is to disseminate knowledge which has already been ascertained. The social studies are organized primarily for instructional purposes.

The official use of the term “social studies” to indicate the whole field of subjects dealing with human relationships dates from 1916. In that year the Committee on Social Studies of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education of the National Education Association published a report which gave sanction to the use of the term and delimited its meaning. The organization in 1921 of the teachers in this field and the selection of the name, The National Council for the Social Studies, tended to standardize the use of the term. The constitution of the Council now states that “The term ‘social studies’ is used to include history, economics, sociology, civics, geography, and all modifications or combinations of subjects whose content as well as aim is predominantly social.” Whether the term “social studies” is apt, accurate, or fortunate may be a matter of opinion, but there can be no doubt that it is the term used to designate those school subjects which deal with human activities, achievements, and relationships.

The process of transforming the separate subjects into a federated group gave rise to various theories and ideas. Some writers and experimenters wanted to fuse two particular subjects; others wanted to combine each of them with history; and still others wanted to efface all subjects, leaving only the undivided field of the social studies. They differed widely with one another in the extent to which they combined materials from the various subjects, in the advantages claimed for each combination, and in the name given to the process. All agreed, however, in basing their arguments upon the theory that pupils could learn more readily if civics and history, for example, were fused into a significant unity. Regardless of the merits or soundness of any particular theory or experiment, one general result seems to have emerged from this period of trial and error, namely, the widespread recognition of the intimate relations among all subjects within the social studies field. Furthermore, social studies teachers have increasingly realized that the intimate relationship which exists among the subjects within the social studies field extends, though in a lesser degree, to subjects in other fields.

B. The Status of History within the Social Studies

There is a widespread notion that history, particularly American history, is being squeezed out of the curriculum in both the schools and the colleges. The assumed cause for this assumed calamity is the mere existence of the field of the social studies. What are the facts?

The recognition of the social studies field with the attendant rise of economics, sociology, social problems, and other studies inevitably lessened the prominence and predominance of history. Some educators and historians have argued that the addition of new subjects to the curriculum necessarily lessened the time devoted to history. The elimination of English history, the merging of ancient and medieval history, and the subsequent substitution of a one-year course in world history for the two-year cycle in European history do seem to imply lessened attention to the subjects. The loss is more apparent than real, however, for few students elected the two-year cycle in European history, whereas world history has become a requirement in many schools. Though the change in the program makes it appear that history has suffered an enormous loss, the number of pupils who study world history compares favorably with the number of those who formerly studied one or the other of the courses in the two-year sequence.

Whatever may be the status of European history, American history has made steady gains. It has gained in time allotment and in absolute and relative enrollment, and it has become a generally required subject in both the elementary and the high schools. The data supporting these statements appear in Chapter III. Here it is sufficient to point out that whatever loss history may have suffered has not been at the expense of the history of the United States.

Furthermore, American history is receiving not only more formal recognition, but also more attention within other subjects. Numerous topics and units in economics, sociology, government, modern problems, and other subjects draw heavily from history. Such topics as immigration, foreign trade, international relations, the tariff, world resources, transportation, and dozens of others cannot be taught without extensive use of history. One may question the accuracy and adequacy of the history learned by this indirect method, but no one can deny that large elements of modern and contemporary history are involved in the study of these topics.

While history so labelled may receive less class time than it did twenty years ago, the social studies as a whole have received increased attention. Before that time geography, civics, and history were in the program, but they continued to be more or less unrelated subjects. The rise of the social studies field convinced school administrators and teachers of the desirability of providing a systematic sequence of social subjects, one for each grade level. Thus the aggregate time which is devoted to the social studies is far greater than the time formerly devoted to the separate subjects of civics, geography, and history.

The conclusions about the status of history within the social studies are (1) the aggregate time devoted to the social studies is on the increase; (2) European history at the high-school level has suffered a loss in time allotment, but not necessarily in enrollment; and (3) American history has not only maintained its status but has actually received increased attention in the middle grades, at the junior-high-school level, in the senior high school, and in college.

C. A Recommended Policy

There is no exclusive road to the achievement of a particular understanding; there is no exclusive method for the acquisition of a particular skill. Various materials can be utilized in the development of a desired insight. The Committee nevertheless believes that there are compelling reasons why it should endorse the study of history and why it should undertake to indicate at least the minimum content of American history.1  The argument is not based upon any loyalty to history for its own sake. The interests and capacities of pupils and the needs of society take precedence over the claims of any subject. The argument for history rests upon the assumption that it serves the needs of the individual and society. Citizens cannot understand the society in which they live without some knowledge of its past, and they cannot give their fullest loyalty to the nation without understanding the ideals and aspirations which have developed in its history. Human relationships exist in time as well as in space, and a program of social studies which neglects the time dimension will give a distorted view of the world.

Believing that history offers peculiar values, the Committee is concerned here with the question of adjusting it to the other subjects within the social studies field. While it endorses the teaching of the other social studies and approves experimental attempts to combine, integrate, or unify various elements from all the subjects, it condemns the mislabeling of courses. Contemporary problems and current events deserve attention, but they should not be scheduled as history nor regarded as substitutes for it. Faith in the efficacy of history, however, does not mean any disparagement of civics or economics or geography or sociology. Neither does it involve any derogation of current events, social problems, or other combinations of subjects; nor does it involve any minimizing of the value of units and topics. There is room in the social studies field for the study of history as history. Historical-mindedness and the historical method can not be learned from other subjects. And history, so organized and labeled, does not constitute an obstacle to learning. It is dull and narrow only when written by unimaginative pedants and taught by ill-prepared and uninterested teachers. When written and taught by men and women who love and understand the subject it is an introduction to all aspects of life. Workmen and kings, gossip and state documents, mobs and legislatures, machines and ideas, institutions and revolutions—all these and hundreds of other topics properly fall within the purview of history.

The Committee endorses the continued study of the various social studies, both separately and in meaningful combinations. It goes even further and approves the efforts to correlate social studies with subjects outside the field; for example, literature and history. The endorsement of such experiments does not imply any lessened faith in the value of studying history as such. It believes that there are values in the study of systematic and organized bodies of materials; for an understanding of society and its problems the study of the slow evolution of institutions and nations is necessary. The careful study of history will result in an understanding of chronology, continuity, cause and effect, and of trends, forces, and movements.

The Committee therefore recommends (1) that United States history continue to be offered in the middle grades, in the junior high school, in the senior high school, and in college, and (2) that the use of history as an approach be emphasized in all social studies courses. This study of national history should not be isolationist in tone or outlook, since our students will be affected by world events as well as by those which take place within our own borders. American history should, therefore, be taught with continuous awareness of the relations between the United States and the rest of the world. Moreover, the history of the United States cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the history of other countries. The Committee therefore recommends that all high school students take a course in world history.

Next section: Recommended Content for American History Courses


  1. See Chapter VI for the recommended content. []