History and Social Studies: What’s the difference?

This week I’m reporting to you all from Livingston Classical Academy, where I’m watching the BCSI instructional team train new teachers as they prepare to begin the school year. Teachers from two young Hillsdale-affiliated schools are here, and our instructional team is giving them an introduction to the theory and practice of each of the subjects.

It’s a funny thing, being a teacher but not working in a school. It’s like being a headmaster without a school, I think. The first thing I noticed when our sessions began is that each member of the curriculum and instruction team lights up at the front of a classroom. These are people who love to teach, and who know how to do it well. They want what we all want out of our schools: consistent excellence in the pursuit of our mission.

Jordan Adams, History and Lain Instructional Support

Let me introduce you to one of them. This is Jordan Adams. A graduate of Hillsdale with a Master’s Degree from the University of Dallas, Jordan comes to the Barney Charter School initiative from Founders Classical Academy of Lewisville, one of our affiliated schools.

Jordan has taught history, government, economics, and Latin to grades 3-12 and he advises teachers in the areas of history and Latin. This morning he gave a presentation on the difference between history and social studies, and I thought I’d share some notes I took during his talk.

If you are a parent, these notes might help you evaluate your child’s history class. If you are a teacher in a classical school, they might help you plan your lessons or give you ways to describe the teaching of history to others. If you are a teacher of social studies or a teacher in a non-classical school, this might help you think about two different ways of approaching the same subject.

What’s the difference between history and social studies?

Social studies is a scientific approach to the study of history. It assumes that there is a scientific or semi-scientific explanation for human behavior, and that by studying and analyzing the behavior of human beings in the past, we can fully understand human beings and perhaps even manipulate human behavior to prevent bad things from happening in the future. Social studies tends to be focused on change or improvement, and it rests on the idea that by studying the past we can ensure a brighter future. Social studies tends to study groups of people rather than individuals, and it looks to draw generalizations and identify trends or themes over time.

History, on the other hand, treats the events of the past as a story–the story of human beings individually and in society. History is a narrative account of what happened in the past, and when it is compelling it focuses on the most important things. History is interested in particular human beings and explore the effect that important people and important events had. It notes that the past is full of things to admire and things to condemn, and that the future is not necessarily better than the past.

What is a social studies teacher like?

A social studies teacher is distant and removed, treating the people and events of the past as objects to be analyzed. The social studies teacher collects data points and speaks broadly about themes and eras. The social studies teacher hopes or expects that mastery of these data points will result in a full understanding of human beings, and that that full understanding can be used to improve the human condition. Perhaps unconsciously, the social studies teacher teaches students to be distant from the subject, too. Like the social scientist, these students must memorize, master, and analyze so that they can make use of their knowledge. Knowledge in the social studies classroom is above all a tool.

What is a history teacher like?

A history teacher is above all a storyteller, someone who is fully immersed in the time period he or she is teaching and who sometimes speaks about the people at that time as if he knows them. A history teacher delights in thinking about history and studies it for its own sake. His knowledge is not a tool, but a source of great delight for him and for others. Sure, it has its uses, but that’s not why he learned history in the first place. Above all, he knows because he loves to learn.

Mrs. Rariden teaches a Kindergarten geography lesson on the seven continents.

A great history lesson is a little bit like a performance. There is a drama to it–comedy and tragedy. There is sorrow at the death of a great hero, and anger at the ascent of a villain. The teacher delivers the lesson and has the class’s full attention, but the teacher himself is not the students’ focus. He is the vehicle through which they watch the stories of the past unfold. Sometimes the students may help act out the performance, but because there is a lot to cover and because the teacher is the one who knows, he never hands over control the class to the students. He is always in charge, moving quickly and excitedly, imparting through his speech and action his love of history and his delight as the students learn to love it too.

There are many good things that come from the study of history, but above all, the history teacher studies history because it is delightful. The history teacher is neither distant nor analytical. He is a great master of information, full of names and dates, always creating timelines and scrawling maps on the board, but the history teacher never lets the memorization of dates or places become the primary goal of class. Knowing the facts is important because it leads the students to deeper understanding. They don’t memorize every fact and date, just the ones that matter most. These they know by heart, and they can recall them at a moment’s notice.

Mr. Heyl teaches ancient history to a class of 6th graders.

The history teacher immerses the class in primary texts, because by reading the words of those who came before students learn to put ourselves in their place. These texts are not easy to read at first, but with a little practice the language becomes familiar and shows us what the people who wrote it are like. Reading the words of those who came before us reminds us that they were human beings too, that they had lives like ours, and that they experienced the human condition as we do. Suddenly these figures from the past begin to take shape; they don’t seem so different from us even when they lived hundreds of years before. This makes us wonder whether things are so different now than they used to be. If they are different, how are they different? What is the same?

The history teacher asks questions of the students, perhaps dozens or more than a hundred per class, to help the students think for themselves. He doesn’t give the answer, but leads students to wonder and discover things on their own. Because there are so many questions and because every student is called upon to speak at some point in the class, students are not just attentive but fascinated, and eager for their opportunity to say what they have learned. Speaking up in class becomes commonplace, and their attention turns from whether they have spoken that day to what they said and how they said it.

Sitting through a great history lesson is exciting. It is suspenseful. There is a lot of energy in the room. The students are thrilled, and their minds are racing, but they are listening in rapt attention for the whole period. At the end of the story they are dying to know what happens next, or they are left with some big question to ponder on their own.

Now, becoming an excellent teacher of history is the work of a lifetime. Almost none of us are able to teach an excellent history lesson every time in the first years of teaching. But, improving as a teacher is delightful work, and important work, too. We at Hillsdale College are here to help.

This is the first of a series of posts on the teaching of history. Coming soon: the 7 reasons we study history, with examples tied to Hillsdale College’s American classical curriculum for K-12 students.