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Curriculum Update

Time for a social studies revival?

Subjects like history and civics have taken a backseat to math, science and English

Some educators are making a push to bring a renewed emphasis to social studies, as subjects like history and civics have taken a backseat to math, science and English in the nation’s rush to improve academic achievement.

A bill introduced in Congress—the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Learning Act—would allocate $30 million in federal funding to humanities instruction. The bill, known as HR 1802, is currently in committee.

In September, the “College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards” was released through the National Council for the Social Studies. Three years in the making, it can now be downloaded for free at

The C3 framework is designed to help states and school districts blend social studies instruction into the Common Core standards, says Michelle Herczog, vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

“That’s going to be a powerful tool to assist state and local districts in updating social studies standards in ways that will make them aligned to the Common Core,” Herczog says. “The good news is the Common Core State Standards initiative encourages and welcomes interdisciplinary teaching.”

The C3 standards, like the Common Core, will push students to not just memorize dates and facts, but to make in-depth inquiries into the subjects they’re studying—and then write insightfully about the more difficult concepts they’ve learned, she says.

Representatives from more than 20 states and 15 social studies organizations helped develop the standards, which were reviewed by thousands of social studies educators, college professors, and school district administrators.

Here are the “guiding principles” behind the C3 standards, as listed on the NCSS website:

  • Social studies prepares students for college, careers, and civic life.
  • Inquiry is at the heart of social studies.
  • Social studies involves interdisciplinary applications and welcomes integration of the arts and humanities.
  • Social studies is composed of deep and enduring understandings, concepts, and skills from the disciplines.

Ultimately, a broad education in the humanities and social studies is what prepares a student to participate in a democratic society, Herczog adds.

“Luckily, we live in a county run by representative government, but we have to empower kids to understand what that means and that they have the right and responsibility to be engaged in that through voting and activism,” she says.

In the past, the humanities and science have complemented each other in U.S. education, but “in recent years, with concerns about falling behind on science, we’ve lost sight of the value of that union,” says Danielle Allen, the UPS Foundation professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

Allen was a member of the commission that wrote “Heart of the Matter,” a report released earlier this year that urges educators to keep the humanities as a priority alongside math and science.

“This country’s creative dynamism depends substantially on that humanities competent—it’s the component that exercises the brain across multiple dimensions,” she says. “That has been a great force for creativity.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor. Freelance writer John Micklos Jr. contributed to this report.