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Cultural Transmission and the Failure of American Social Studies

American citizenship means hard work, temperance, morality, and the habit of right living.

—Samuel Chapman Armstrong, founder of Hampton Institute

Business norms and values in the early social studies came, not from industry, but from a school whose special task was education of a docile work force.

—Michael Lybarger, “Origins of Modern Social Studies” (1983)

The Changing of the Guard

Older Americans may still remember when they learned History in school.  I was fortunate to have history back in high school in the seventies with an amazing history teacher named Bob Keuhl.  I still share the passion for the subject he imparted to me, and I will always be in his debt. Younger Americans are more likely having classes simply called “social studies.”  My wife’s grandfather also learned history well and didn’t know what to make of social studies.  He looked “sideways” at his grandchildren’s schoolbooks with lots of graphs and charts but found very few stories.  He always scratched his head and hoped the teachers knew what they’re doing.  But something had changed, and that change has created an amazing generation gap of sorts.  It’s odd, since both history and social studies are supposed to support generational and cultural continuity, not drive a wedge in it.

What the Heck are Social Studies?

According to E. Wayne Ross in The Social Studies Curriculum (2006), social studies are meant to provide young people with “the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for active participation in society” (18).  Phrases such as “social competence” and “citizenship education” sum up the goal of these classes.  The Montana Standards for Social Studies, for example, include the following goals:

  • Students access, synthesize, and evaluate information to communicate and apply social studies knowledge to real world situations.
  • Students analyze how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance to understand the operation of government and to demonstrate civic responsibility.
  • Students demonstrate an understanding of the effects of time, continuity, and change on historical and future perspectives and relationships.

Social studies draw from economics, history, geography, government, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and elements of the humanities—literature, music, and visual arts.  They are presented as science and make liberal use of graphs and statistics.  Their approach is usually mostly topical and to a lesser degree chronological.

It's important to recognize that teaching social studies is not teaching history.

Before Social Studies

In his book Ross says that during colonial America the kind of training now provided by social studies was grounded in religious and moral instruction and that “instruction in catechism and Bible was the core of schooling, “though students also learned geography and moral philosophy” (18).  But after the War for Independence, nationalistic education “intended to develop loyal patriots replaced religion as the main purpose of social education.”  Among the chief peddlers of this new nationalism was William McGuffey.  His Eclectic Readers championed bravery, honesty, self-reliance, temperance, industry, and, of course, patriotism.  They aimed at producing a useful working class.  They held the field in public schools well into the 1900s and are even used by many homeschoolers today.

The Strange Origin of Social Studies

In 1916 the Bureau of Education published The Social Studies in Secondary Education.  It was a report from the Committee on Social Studies chaired by Thomas Jesse Jones.  Jones had been one of the first writers to use the words “social studies.”  He had used the words in articles that appeared in the Southern Workman (1905-06).  But the articles weren’t theoretical.  Jones was describing an existing curriculum, the one in use at Hampton Institute, a school dedicated to training young black men and Native Americans.  Jones later expanded his articles into a book:  Social Studies in the Hampton Curriculum.  Jones had worked at Hampton and knew its curriculum well.

Jones saw the emphasis of Hampton instruction as “the essentials of a good home, the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, the cost and meaning of education, the place of labor, and the importance of thrift.”  The young men at Hampton needed to understand the cultural importance of material possession, the value of hard work, the social advantages of intelligence and integrity, the origin of human institutions, and the types of character that strengthen them.  These were the “qualities necessary for their race to advance.”  “The assumption that races and institutions…were subject to the laws of evolution was common to all the Hampton social studies.”  According to Jones, evolution was more than an assumption in Hampton’s classes; it was “the most important truth taught by these social studies” (Lybarger 457).

The Centrality of Evolution To Social Studies

The Hampton course on sociology dealt directly with the assumed correlation between evolution and race.  Young blacks were taught sociology so that they could gain an understanding of:

(1)  Race differences as shown in physique, health, birthrate, illiteracy, economic conditions, and crime.

(2)  Race differences, mental and moral, as shown in the efficiency of such organizations as the home, the church, and the club.

(3)  The relations of these differences to the progress of the Negro and Indian races, and especially their bearing upon the social situation in the southern states.


The emphasis in the last line was in the original document.  The implication is clear.  Hampton students were taught that social evolution, however slow, was inevitable; that “only time and the continued influence of Whites were required for Blacks to reach the level of Anglo-Saxons” (Lybarger 459).  In the meantime, agitation and revolution were untenable options.  Blacks needed to accept second-class citizenship and a second-class education.

What Hampton modeled, and what Jones reported on in his article, the Committee on Social Studies proposed as official American educational policy.  “The emphasis on the citizen as worker found in Social Studies in the Hampton Curriculum is reflected in the identification of the civic virtues with the traits necessary for a docile worker in The Social Studies in Secondary Education.”  Michael Lybarger continues:

This suggests the Black people, in the south at least, constituted a working class, and one object of the Hampton social studies was to legitimate and perpetuate that status.  This affords insights into the appeal the Hampton social studies might have held for educators and their wealthy patrons, especially in the north.  After 1900, these people became concerned with the educational problem presented by the increasing numbers of immigrants from central and eastern Europe.  These newcomers and their children had to be educated.  Their education had to be of a special type, assisting them in making the best of their lot and securing their allegiance to the world of work as well as exiting political, economic, and social arrangement.  To educators confronted with such a problem, a social studies curriculum designed to inculcate the virtues found in the Hampton social studies must have seemed especially attractive. (466)

In other words, the original goal of the social studies curriculum was to turn the new immigrants—and everyone else under its sway—into an industrious and compliant work force, perfect citizens for the Great Society.

Toward What Goal?

Times change and years pass.  What sociologists and educators deem appropriate civic virtues in one generation end up falling behind the evolutionary curve in the next.  Today, despite general agreement on the basic definition of social studies, no one can agree any longer on the desired moral outcome.  What’s a good citizen?  What’s social competence?  Some “scholars” say that social studies ought to emphasize geography and history, some say environmental competence, and others say public policy or moral development.  Many educators see social studies as a means of helping students mature into established adult roles, whatever the heck that means. But the predominant view is to see it as a means of insuring students become sharp critics of the older Christian culture.  According to Ross, educational scholars have sorted all these approaches out into three broad categories.

The first says that social studies ought to transmit facts and values from the academic disciplines.  In this approach social studies become the handmaiden of sociology and the other social sciences.

The second says that social studies ought to function as a means of cultural transmission, a way of achieving cultural continuity from one generation to the next.  This approach stresses the values and ethics of the existing culture.  It is, in that sense, broadly conservative.  It aims at cultural stability and emphasizes the students’ social adaptation.

The third would have social studies emphasize reflective inquiry and informed social criticism.  Students need to learn to question, criticize and even deconstruct American society.  The goal here is the promotion of social transformation, the reconstruction of American society into something new.  This seems to be the approach favored by most social studies teachers (Ross 21).  The most adventurous speak of “racial and economic justice” and “a new social order.”

By Whose Standard?

Those who transmit culture are necessarily inculcating a worldview.  The question is, as always… whose?  The answer, once we get it, should provoke some other questions, ones basic to both sociology and to covenant theology:

  • Within that worldview, what are the metaphysical and ontological underpinnings of society?  What is ultimate reality?
  • How does ultimate reality manifest itself within or to the society in question?
  • What ethics define the social bond?  What is the nature of law?
  • Through what sanctions does the society maintain itself and make progress toward its social and ethical goals?
  • What is the nature of progress, and who gets to define it?  Who gets to create a vision for the future?

Metaphysics is the key.  Answers to the questions, “What is real?” and “Who is God?” will determine what we think of authority, ethics, and time, and whether or not we can even believe in cultural continuity and progress.  We shouldn’t discuss the transmission of a culture until we understand the worldview behind the culture. Finding self-conscious teachers that understand this has always been a rough go in both public and Christian schools.

A Theology of History

The covenant formula highlighted in the Book of Deuteronomy builds covenant continuity on both the transcendence and immanence of Yahweh.  God is One, invisible and intangible in His essence.  He can’t be imaged or manipulated through magic.  He is sovereign.  But this same God reveals Himself in history through creation, providence, and miracles.  The miraculous includes His redemptive acts and His infallible word.  God did bring devastating plagues on Egypt.  And through Moses, He gave us the Five Books of the Law, a very metaphysical and infallible document to say the least.

Israel’s relationship with Yahweh was rooted in history, a very real history marked by carnage and sunken chariots.  Moses could stand before Israel and insist, “You heard!  You saw!  You were there” (Deut. 4—5).  Israel’s culture wasn’t a set of abstract values and virtues; it was whole-hearted response to the God who acted in history to redeem and sanctify His people. There were stories to tell and laws to obey.  Covenantal continuity meant cultural continuity.


Social studies offers us a pathway to attain cultural continuity, but without any theological or historical context.  Unfortunately, many Christian schools also fail to understand how adjusting a child socially differs from teaching history.  But a curricular process or methodology like social studies is never neutral.  We always pass on some particular culture and some particular worldview.  Social studies is certainly no exception. The worldview ultimately determines the process, and the process delivers the worldview.  The Bible, by contrast, gives us history, doctrine, and law in no uncertain terms.  It deals in absolutes.  Covenant life simply can’t be communicated through social studies.  That being said, teaching history provides hope for the future and is an antidote to slavery.

For Further Reading:

E. Wayne Ross, The Social Studies Curriculum:  Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 2006).

Kate Uttinger, “’Old Gruff’ and His Readers,” Leben, vol. 7, no. 4 (Oct-Dec 2011).

Michael Lybarger, “Origins of the Modern Social Studies:  1900—1916,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1983), 455—468.

Ray Sutton, That Ye May Prosper, Dominion by Covenant (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economic, 1987).

Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA:  Ross House Books, 1981).

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