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Social studies education is more important than ever

By Mara Miller

LAST UPDATED: 5:45 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

The state Board of Education will vote on Aug. 16 on whether to lower social studies requirements for high school students.

Given that Hawaii's position between East and West is both particularly vulnerable and particularly advantageous, and that we are at the beginning of "the Asian Century," this reduction is not a good idea.

Most of us agree that math and science education for Hawaii students need strengthening. But the proposal to improve math and science achievements by cutting social studies education is based on three critical errors.

First, social studies education is more important than ever before. And it is not less important than math and science. Sorting out which is more important, social studies or math and science, is delusional. All our students need all these subjects if they are to have happy and fulfilling lives, if they are to prosper and be healthy, if they — and our society as a whole — are to succeed.

We cannot even understand, much less fix, the global problems facing us in Hawaii unless we can communicate with others who are solving and sometimes causing them. We cannot understand the problems themselves unless we understand both the physical world and ourselves in scientific, cultural and psychological terms. Without these kinds of expertise, we cannot comprehend how we generate our problems, contribute to them or solve them.

Second, cutting requirements would decrease the number of social studies teachers, and would therefore decrease the number of electives available to all students.

Third and most important, education is not a zero-sum game. This is true for four reasons.

» Intellectual resources are not limited, like financial resources. We don't have to rob social studies to pay for math and science. It is not the case that when I learn one thing I forget another, or that in order to learn one thing, I must give up learning another.

We must be creative and figure out how our students can learn everything they need to know to be happy, healthy and prosperous in the 21st century. If this means our teachers must be creative, that's fine. There are many examples that show they are up to it. (For examples, see the Aloha POSSE and Hawaii Council for the Humanities websites.)

» Different kinds of knowledge reinforce each other. We understand history better when we know the arts of another era, and are comfortable reading statistics.

» Different fields of knowledge depend upon each other for both methodology and insight. There are many ways in which learning in one field proceeds by means of another.

Sociologists and even scholars of religion rely on statistics to understand their subjects. Conversely, scientists work better when they have the skills taught in critical thinking classes. Social studies also develops the arts: On our website, you'll see that students in Hawaii social studies classes have made films shown at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Novels, plays and movies feed our knowledge of different places and cultures.

» Finally, social studies is not only fascinating, it is some of the most practical knowledge you can acquire. A New Jersey prosecutor's office hired me to consult with its unit on sex crimes and child abuse because it prosecutors, social workers and police officers found they needed social studies — in this case, Asian culture and values and family structure — to enforce the law.

The Board of Education should preserve and strengthen social studies education.

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