Social studies left behind

Associate Professor Dawn Shinew just returned from a sabbatical year in Germany. As coordinator of the College of Education’s social studies program, she noted the Germans’ knowledge of history, world politics and geography — and compared that with Americans’ understanding.

“I was appalled,” she said. “The Germans were so much better informed. What I observed has been documented in countless studies comparing the level of civic understanding in the U.S. with other nations.”

For example, Shinew said most Germans knew about U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales, but very few Americans know the name of the German chancellor, much less the names of German cabinet members.

“This ignorance is very dangerous for our society,” Shinew said. “How can we compete in a global economy, or make rational political choices, when Americans know so little about the world?

“In our schools, we need more emphasis on social studies — not less. However, with the emphasis on high-stakes testing of students, what we are getting is less.”

Shinew cited a statement released by the National Council for the Social Studies (ONLINE @ in March. The council found that one consequence of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001 was the “marginalization of the core social studies disciplines.” 

Teachers have been forced to concentrate on reading and math to ensure that their students pass the mandated tests. At least one-third of the nation’s school districts have reduced the time for teaching social studies in response to the testing requirement.

In Washington as in other states, Shinew said, most schools no longer offer opportunities for students to engage in civics through experiences like service learning or mock elections.

“To see how important this is, we need to revisit Jefferson’s vision of public education,” Shinew said. “Public education is supposed to prepare citizens to participate in a democratic society. Learning to pass a test is not enough.

“We need to teach social studies. We just can’t allow ourselves to continue to be so ignorant.”