This past fall my 13-year old daughter and I created social studies around a daily news feed, that sometimes captured her personal interests, and sometimes followed trending articles in politics, international security, and justice. Instead of books, she downloaded the Economist app, we
A key to all of this was that we read the news-- or at least the first few paragraphs-- together. I pointed her, and she pointed me, to articles. Sometimes they hung together, of-a-piece, and we talked about that over lunch. Often she skipped around, from allegations against Facebook to U.S. university shout-downs and ‘microaggressions’, from California wildfires to trade wars. We didn’t need to talk about everything. We talked about what interested her.
Another help was that I hired a graduate student of international security studies in Nairobi to WhatsApp twice-weekly with my daughter. We kept a list of article links and passed them to her in advance of the chats. Those scheduled calls created a discipline, which meant my daughter had to get through her news, and had to remember enough to talk about it. It was interesting for me to over-hear her trail of thought as their conversation drifted from one headline to another.
No memorization, no tests, no chronology.
Instead, my daughter’s interaction with social studies was contemporaneous, exploratory, and above all, rooted in conversation. When she asked why the South China Sea is referred to as a “tinderbox,” we found an Infographic mini-lecture together. When she wondered why the U.S. administration has to seem friendly to Saudi Arabia, we found a bunch more articles in Atlantic Monthly. My background implementing development projects with adult education suggests that making learning timely, relevant, social and reinforced through active conversation will make my daughter’s interaction with this information more likely to assimilate into her active thinking about the world around her. But that wasn’t my only goal. More importantly, my daughter wants to consume news. And now she also knows how.
I’m saddened by contrast to watch my 6th grader cynically filling the blanks of his 27-page ditto-packet about ancient Mesopotamia. Fertile crescent. Tigris and Euphrates. Cradle of civilization... He watches “90-Day Fiance” in the background while he fills it out. Having seen this version of social studies so many times, I can’t help feeling that the irrelevant, boring design is intentional.
At school, social studies never gets within 50 years of the present, often not even 500 years. It’s chronological. It has big, bolded words with 3-word definitions next to them. It drills conceptual frameworks (What are the 5 traits of civilization?) to lobotomized kids, who copy phrases from page 34 into the "Critical Thinking" space on page 36. It’s non-controversial. It’s quickly forgotten. It’s so remote that even the teachers struggle to find some way to make it look exciting. (For more depressing views, try joining the FB group, Middle School Social Studies Teachers.)
Chronological learning about society ignores the obvious truth that most of us don’t seek or need a huge background to interact with real-time problems. As Elon Musk said, when building an engine, we don’t stop and study the derivation of the monkey-wrench. We just figure out how to use it. And I can see through my daughter’s experience that she becomes curious around issues like Russian shopping mall fires, American mass-shootings, Hungarian bigotry and Chinese facial-recognition surveillance, and her curiosity drives a backward examination of how these things came about. Her thinking is not in timelines. She is discovering the monkey-wrenches in her own messy way.
The “mastery” (if you speak IB) or content-memorization approach to history short-circuits the tween mind, and prevents this messy discovery process.
Mind-numbingly dull social studies lessons fit into a Hobbesian view about kids and, paradoxically, perpetuate the Hobbesian kid. Kids couldn’t care less. They hate it. They want to eat chips and watch BuzzFeed. So we hold them to their chairs, cram it down their throats (and occasionally dress it up with costumes, food-tasting and dioramas made at 11pm by exhausted working mothers). We threaten and hold the grading system over their heads. Kids comply and memorize, hate every moment, forget, and return to chips and BuzzFeed. This closes the Hobbesian loop. As soon as social studies will end, these persecuted teens will settle into making money, watching cable news-tainment, and continuing not to give a shit about the world.
I’ve written before about the wisdom of political dissidents in their fights--against whatever odds--for self-determination. About the different human value of an hour spent according to one’s own will versus complying to the will of a system. I’ve questioned why education is more Hobbesian than Lockean. Are we afraid of what our kids are made of? Is it unsettling to think of teens skipping over papyrus or the Spanish Inquisition?
For sure, the Hobbesian-programmed kid takes time to discover his productive internal motivations when you take away compulsion and timelines. You have programmed him that way. Learning-to-learn is a process. Tweens need nudges to Politico, to Slate, to the Economist. They need mentors and reminders and some urgency to read.
It takes time, patience, and daily interactions with news to cultivate the civic mind. That’s what social studies should be.