What exactly is social studies? I always thought of it as a watered-down version of history for kids, with a few songs and speeches thrown in to make it interesting and create a spirit of patriotism. As children we sang The Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, pretty much until we were red, white and blue in the face, and every morning we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I vividly remember my older brother and sister struggling for days with cumbersome words like “consecrate” and “hallowed” when they had to memorize The Gettysburg Address, but for some reason I was spared that torture.
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS; 1994) defines “social studies” as an integration of many subjects “to promote civic competence” in a democratic society. Practically any field of endeavor that might help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good should not be excluded from the social studies curriculum, though traditionally history, geography, economics and political science have been the primary subjects.
Prior to fourth grade I don’t remember much of what I was taught under the umbrella of the social studies, but I very vividly remember reading about early California, and especially about the Spanish explorers and conquistadors like Columbus, Magellan, Cortez and Pizarro. I was particularly enthralled by the stories of Cabeza de Vaca and Coronado in their search for the Seven Cities of Gold and the Isla de California, and Balboa’s trek across the isthmus of Panama to discover the great Pacific Ocean, and the journeys of Father Junipero Serra and his founding of many of the California missions. One of the most popular tv shows at the time was Zorro, which, as it turned out, became a wonderful companion to what I was learning in school about the Spanish colonies.
California history is one of my favorite subjects, and my greatest fear in teaching social studies to fourth graders today is that it won’t be “their” favorite. California is, and always has been a land for dreamers. From the very beginning people have come here in search of a better life. As their descendents we are the rightful heirs to their great legacy, and entitled to know the truth about them. Whether our ancestors were pioneers who crossed the plains for gold in covered wagons or Okies in old trucks, escaping the poverty of the Dust Bowl, Chinese immigrants “shanghai-ed” in their own country and sent to work on the transcontinental railroad, or migrant workers from Mexico, we all have a legitimate claim to stake in California.