#debatED: The Social Studies Curriculum

Previously in my #debatED series, I pitted against each other two research papers on iPads in the classroom. This time, I look at the arguments around the social studies curriculum, specifically those advanced by Kieran Egan.

For those coming from a British context, where history and geography are split into separate subjects, this discussion may seem pointless. However, in the United States and Canada, these subjects are combined into a single class, social studies, often while mixing in other disciplines such as politics and economics. The final form this takes is variable. The course may nominally be called social studies, but the disciplines remain firmly separated; for example, there may be two history units and two geography units in a given year. In other manifestations, history, geography, economics, politics and other disciplines are swirled together. Alberta uses the latter format, or at least it did when I completed high school. Each year of high school social studies was orientated around a common theme: Grade 10, globalization; Grade 11, nationalism; Grade 12, liberalism and ideology. Different historical topics and current issues were touched on as they related to the theme. Another variation is to have social studies in the younger grades, and then split in into its disciplines in the higher grades, similar to how science splits into chemistry, physics, and biology. Ontario does this.

Egan works for Simon Fraser University, which is in British Columbia, another Canadian province that uses the social studies curriculum into high school. The articles are old, dating from the 1980s and 1990s, but seeing as they are based, not on experimental evidence, but on theoretical arguments, their age is not as issue and the arguments can still be assessed on their merits. After all, many educational theorists still reference Dewey’s ideas. Egan’s papers inspired a a collection of responses, which in turn prompted Egan to reply in turn, a volley of ideas and arguments that is perfect for this #debatED series.

I must confess, unlike the iPads debate, where I was on the fence about technology in the classroom, I do have more of a preformed opinion on social studies. However, in compliance with the rules I set out in the first post of this series, I will try to focus on weighing the merits of the arguments, and not on which side I think is right.

Resolved: That the social studies curriculum does not work.


Egan, K. (1980). John Dewey and the Social Studies Curriculum. Theory and Research in Social Education, 8 (2), 37-55.

Egan, K. (1984). Social Studies and the Erosion of Education. Curriculum Inquiry, 13 (2), 195-214.

Egan, K. (1999). Resisting the Erosion of Education: A Case for Disciplines in Social Studies. In R. Case & P. Clark (Eds), The Canadian Anthology of social studies: Issues and Strategies for Teachers (131-138). Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press.

Egan focuses his criticisms of the social studies curriculum on the ideas of Dewey, as they serves as the theoretical basis for it. For Egan, he is trying to target the best justification for the curriculum that he knows of, but I like this approach as it addresses the “implicit ideology inherent in the social studies curriculum” (1983).

Dewey’s first main argument in that new learning can only be built upon previous experience and knowledge. This is a fair representation of learning that has a strong psychological basis. For Egan, the problem comes with how this proposition is enacted in social studies. It results in an expanding horizons curriculum, with family and community being the focus of the younger grades, and expanding out to the city and country from there. Even through middle school and high school, “relevance” remains the key criteria for selecting topics of study.

While Dewey and many social studies curriculums take the student’s social context as the basis of experience to be built upon, Egan argues otherwise. He states that students gain fundamental categories, such as love, hate, fear, and power, from a young age, and it is through these lenses that topics are made accessible. Take Star Wars: A New Hope as an example. Jedi powers, lightsabers, and planet-destroying weapons are far removed from student experience, but the struggle against an oppressive power is easily understood, as it is based in these fundamental categories. This reminds me of the Jerome Bruner quote that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”

Egan doesn’t stop there. The “expanding horizons” approach to curriculum teaches students things they are going to learn anyways. As well, “the everyday things around us are among the last things we come to appreciate intellectually…it is, as T.S. Eliot noted, only at the end of all our exploring that we arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (1983). At first glance, this seemed like a paradox to me, but on reflection it made sense. We will come to know and understand our immediate context eventually, but not without prerequisite knowledge and concepts. The final problems Egan finds with this expanding horizons approach is that it “expresses a contempt for children’s intelligence” (1983) and a focus on the student’s experience tends towards narcissism. I would add that it is patronizing to assume students will not be interested in anything beyond themselves.

Egan divides the purposes of education into two: socializing and educating. Socializing aims to enable students to be part of society, to make life possible, while educating aims to enrich life and make it worthwhile. The former is orientated around relevance, while the latter is distinguished by its appeals to disciplines. For Egan, the crux of the distinction is the aim:

The aim of socializing is to bring people to share certain values, ideas, skills or whatever, and the criteria that determine which values, ideas, skills, or whatever, should be included in the curriculum are the shifting criteria of utility to present or anticipated future social experience. The aim of education is the expansion and refinement of individual understanding, and the criteria which determine what range of studies should be included in the curriculum to bring about such understanding are relatively stable criteria of disciplined knowledge. (1999)

Almost all activities in school have elements of both, but they also compete for curriculum time, particularly when social studies and relevance are employed to the detriment of the most traditional disciplines and history and geography.

The distinction between educating and socializing is important, as “there is a powerful trend in [Dewey’s] writing to make socializing criteria dominant in determining curriculum content” (1980):

Despite Dewey’s discussion of the intrinsic value of certain educational activities, and the overall aim to liberate the child from the local and immediate, the general effect of his constant tying of all studies to empirical experience and social activity seems to be, in social studies at least, a curriculum that remains in thrall to the local, the provincial, the narrow. (1980)

Traditional academic disciplines are victims of this socializing social studies curriculum, notably history and geography. They are mixed and match, with little regard to “that one is an empirical science and the other a study of past human events reconstructed from present traces, having different methodologies, theories, and modes of expression” (1980). Bits and pieces are pulled from them in accordance to the connections that can be made to students’ lives and social issues.

Egan finds a contradiction between the focus on students’ immediate social experience and the goal of developing critical thinking skills, and argues that the latter is much better served simply through the study of history.

History helps us develop meanings and provides context for our experiences, while “to learn about one’s relatively recent history, while having relatively little knowledge of anything else, will guarantee a lack of proportion or perspective” (1980).

History seeks to understand the past, not for the purpose of present experiences, but on its own terms. Part of my frustrations with the Alberta curriculum when I was a student was that we never looked at the past on its own terms, but just segments as they were “relevant”, reducing its complexities down to a single theme. The study of history offers more than social studies can:

We do not look to history for practical lessons, but for human understanding: It is an expansion of our experience. We can learn from it discipline in making sense of human experience generally and in making sense of our own experience, but not in the sense sought by social studies…It helps us treat our own experience with something like the attempts at objectivity we learn to bring to others. social studies tends towards narcissism, history takes the students’ attention away from themselves. (1983)

So, according to Egan, the social studies curriculum does not work, as it rests in a shaky theoretical basis and is taught to the detriment of much more worthwhile subjects.


Thornton, S. (1984). Social Studies Misunderstood: A Reply to Kieran Egan. Theory and Research in Social Education, 12 (1), 43-47.

Thornton has three main points of criticism. First, that Egan is mistaken about the fundamental categories children “know”, specifically whether students of a young age can truly know their feelings:

The categorization of their emotions that children do perform is intellectually haphazard; the way they feel about their emotions is precisely the major different between their way of knowing and a more mature way of knowing. Children need to be educated about their emotions because they have no deep understanding of what emotions mean and how they have affected the course of human life.

Thornton’s point is incomplete here. He seems to be implying that because children lack an intellectual awareness of their feelings, these fundamental categories cannot be leveraged in order to explore novel topics. But because he doesn’t complete this thought, it remains a superficial criticism of Egan’s categories.

Beyond what type of experience children bring to school, Thornton also points out that “the objections that Egan raises, such as basing curricula on the child’s experience alone, represents gross distortions of Dewey’s ideas” and that “Dewey made quite clear that, while the child’s experience was a starting point, that must be balanced with progressive organization of subject matter.” However, I think the greater concern in this discussion is not what Dewey meant but the reality of how his ideas are implemented and whether the resulting curriculum works.

His second criticism targets Egan’s distinction between educating and socializing. I don’t agree with Thornton that Egan’s entire thesis rests upon this, but he’s right that the line between them is not quite clear.

Thornton’s final point is on Egan’s justification for the study of history. Egan argues that, when we view history through the lense of the present, we distort history and overstress the significance of the present moment, and that student opinions on history don’t matter. Thornton says that “Egan is claiming, in effect, that students need not reach their own interpretations of history.” However, an opinion is different from historical interpretations, and Egan is arguing that students should learn how to do historical analysis that leads to historical interpretations. Thornton is right that students process what they learn in light of their own experience; this is what Egan is arguing we do in the younger grades through those fundamental categories.


Case, R., Daniels, L., & Labar, C. (1984). Slaying Myths: A Response to Maxine Green and Kieran Egan. Curriculum Inquiry, 14 (3), 311-317.

Case et al, like Thornton, address Egan’s fundamental categories:

Arguing that nothing in the child’s own experiences could possess the richness offered by the mythical and the legendary, Egan equates the known with the everyday and trivial. This, of course, overlooks the fact that monsters, dragons, and mythical heroes are already embedded in the background children bring to school with them. There is nothing inconsistent with making use of these “curious imaginary realms” in an expanding horizons approach. Neither, as we will see, is there anything necessarily trivial in such immediate areas of the social lives of children as the family, the neighbourhood and the community. In fact, these loci encompass and exhibit the very categories Egan thinks provide a framework for a rich and vivid understanding of the world.

First, their point about children already knowing about the mythical and legendary proves Egan’s point: that topics far removed from children’s everyday experience are accessible from a young age, and this everyday experience does not need to be the basis of curriculum. Their point that the social lives of children includes the fundamental categories Egan discusses does not really support focusing curriculum on their social lives, as they don’t address Egan’s argument that they will come to know this anyways and it is better to spend curriculum time on something they won’t learn on their own.

I agree with them that getting students to research their family or local history is a way to get them to “do” history, but I would argue that teaching social studies, rather than history, as a course detracts from these disciplinary schools of “doing” history. They also argue that social studies is a systematic way of exploring critical values issues, but I do not see how the study of history does not fulfill this purpose; in fact, its chronological structure is a more systematic study of humanity, compared to social studies which tends to be more piecemeal.


Franklin, B. (1984). Educational Ideas and School Practice: A Response to Kieran Egan and Maxine Greene. Curriculum Inquiry, 14 (3), 319-326.

Franklin looks at historical examples of social studies curriculums, to show that Egan misrepresents their aims and intentions and overstates the impact of Dewey’s ideas. It was interesting to read, because none of the other articles explore in-depth examples of social studies curriculum, but instead talk more generally.

However, all of his examples are from before 1950. He claims that Dewey’s ideas were not successful in changing the curriculum, but focuses on a period of time that, today, people see at utilizing traditional educational practices. More modern social studies curriculum do show the influence Dewey discusses.

Secondly, Egan argues that the study of history helps us develop meanings and concepts that assist in understanding the present, and that history as an academic discipline seeks “the discovery of the thoughts of its agents, or, in W.H. Dray’s formulation, the discovery of the reasons why people did what they did” (1983). This type of historical analysis is precisely what Franklin did in his paper. He used historical thinking skills to “treat our own experience with something like the attempts at the objectivity we learn to bring to other” (Egan, 1983). Wouldn’t he want our students equipped to do the same?


Green, T. (1984). Social Studies and the American Dream: Responsive Notes. Curriculum Inquiry, 14 (3), 327-336.

Green mostly agrees with Egan about the fundamental categories, though he finds the list incomplete. The main point of his criticism is on Egan’s distinction between educating and socializing.

First, he argues that the work of an academic discipline does not necessarily offer a good educational model:

For example, it may be the aim of ethics, as an academic discipline, to outline the rational principles of good conduct. But no one would suppose that the measure of a good ethics course in to be found in the moral improvement of the students. The moral improvement of students may be an acceptable educational aim of the practice of moral education…But that is not the aim of ethics, as an academic discipline.

Egan basis his educational aim for the study of history on history as a discipline, but for Green, the role of history in schools is the maintenance of social meaning and “the creation of a sense of social membership or identity.” I think Egan would call this socialization.

However, like others, Green finds the boundary between educating and socializing to be unclear. He even sees elements of socializing in induction to academic disciplines or different art forms. For example, “what allows us to have symphony orchestras is that musicians are socialized to certain shared standards of critical judgement and values.” I agree with this. It reminds me of how advocates of knowledge-rich curriculums argue that it helps with reading comprehension, which Egan would call a socializing goal; they would agree with him, as well, on teaching history instead of social studies. Egan’s distinction between educating and socializing doesn’t really work.


Egan, K. (1984a). Commentary: Reply to Thornton, “Social Studies Misunderstood”. Theory and Research in Social Education, 12 (2), 65-76.

Egan, K. (1984b). A Rejoinder to Green, Franklin, Case, Daniels, and Labar. Curriculum Inquiry, 14 (3), 341-345.

In his response articles, Egan first addresses the responses to his distinction between educating and socializing. Schools must do both, he reinterate, but his point is that social studies “is designed in such a way that achievement of its educational aims is rare” (1984a).

Second, he addresses Thornton’s comments on what young children know, which were generally focused on the word “knowing” and missed Egan’s central point:

While it is undeniable odd to say that young children know good and bad, fear and security, it is surely even odder to suggest that they do not…my concern was not that one “knows” fear and security in some explicit sense but that children must have such concepts available in some form in order to make sense of stories in which they are the main structural features. (1984a)

Franklin and Thornton critique Egan’s focus on Dewey. Franklin finds no reference to Dewey in curriculum documents, and Thornton claims Egan has misread the educational philosopher. Egan addresses this in his initial articles, but states again in his response articles that he was simply trying to address the best defense of the social studies curriculum, and “nowhere else besides in Dewey’s writings can one find coherent arguments laid out that provide any kind of support for the general form and content of the curriculum” (1984a). Nothing in education is atheoretical, so he simply is trying to identify and address the theory behind it.

There are only two places where Egan actually adds to his original arguments: his critique of the aims of social studies, and his justification for history as a standalone subject.

While Case et al find the stated aims of social studies sufficient to facilitate curriculum writing, Egan sees them as too broad to be of use. He finds social studies to be a course where “we put anything we think valuable that does not fit anywhere else” (1984b):

How can anyone take seriously the aim of a curriculum area with a finite number of class hours to produce ideal citizens, self-aware moral agents, who know wads of history, geography, and bits of all the social sciences? (1984a)

Instead, he again asserts the value of teaching history:

I argue for history because it offers the possibility of engaging aspects of reality in powerful, vivid, and dramatic terms: terms which are meaningful to young children because they are, in part, analogous to the psychological journey, with its struggles, that they have already taken…The development of historical understanding, I argue, requires certain kinds of history teaching at early ages. If this is not done, as it is not in most places at present, then the prerequisites for later understanding are not prepared. Thus attempts to teach history in secondary schools are doomed to general failure because the prerequisites, which are the means of access to more sophisticated understanding, have not been taught. (1984a)

And the winner is…

This puts me in an awkward position. I’ve taught social studies in the past. I currently teach social studies. I will likely teach it again in the future (hello, potential future employers). And I happily teach it, because I love history and geography.

But I also don’t have a good track record for keeping my arguments and opinions to myself. So here we go.

Egan may have a slight advantage, with the opportunity to respond to the responses, but, in general, he just reiterated what he already said.

Egan argues that we should use the fundamental categories through which young children view the world, rather than the content of their social lives, when determining a starting point for bringing them from the known to the unknown. This point is only superficially addressed by the negative side.

Egan’s distinction between educating and socializing is unclear, but it is not the main basis of his argument. The negative side does not address his points that the expanding horizons curriculum starts by teaching students what they will learn on their own anyways, that they need to develop conceptual understanding before they can truly understand their immediate environment, and that presuming we need to focus on the local expresses a contempt for children’s intelligence.

While Egan’s justification for teaching history needs more work, no one on the negative side offers even remotely the same for social studies.

The crux of the debate is whether social studies works; I took the debate resolution from the opening sentence of Egan’s 1980 and 1999 articles. The negative side failed to address the core of Egan’s argument and the crux of the debate, nor did they offer much of defense of social studies themselves.

Or, in Egan’s words, “if my accusations of failure are unfounded, to what do the defenders of the curriculum point as evidence of success?” (1984a).

I award the win to the affirmative side.


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