Social Studies Education
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College
Columbia University

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Social Studies Program Philosophy

We live in challenging times. Problems on the near horizon, including global climate change, mass violence, deteriorating social welfare, and human rights violations can lead to cynicism and social decline. Yet we paradoxically live in a time of hope and opportunity as the rise of social media foils the despotic reach of governments, new technologies create space for robust public discourse, and education stands front and center as the last great hope of humanity's aim to live peaceably, sustainably and humanely.

Social educators are crucial contributors in helping shape this uncertain future. Engaging students in social learning in schools and beyond is fundamentally the task of social studies, a field of integrated study that draws upon history, political science and allied disciplines while seeking new interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary ways of knowing and doing. Given the problems and promise of global concerns immediately on the horizon, we must rise to this occasion and champion education that is reflectively situational and robustly humanistic. 

We undertake this challenge amidst a strong headwind that has reduced discourse about education to simplistic formulations, to a series of quick-fixes that are neither efficient nor resolving. Literacy and numeracy in some quarters have become ends in themselves. Assessment and measurement are too often viewed as achievements in a final sense. Research is reduced to providing formula for actions rather than discursive objects towards a fuller, if incomplete, understanding. Social educators, by their practices, can and ought to lead a conversation about the fundamentally social nature of all knowledge and the special task of schools in building this good community.

And while we encounter resistance, we are supported by a strong wind at our backs. Social studies education was founded by Teachers College faculty at the beginning of the last century as they sought to ameliorate the social ills wrought by urbanization and industrialization in their time. They reshaped public education in the City of New York and around the country with child-centered pedagogy that pointed towards addressing social ills that was truly ahead of its time. While the nature of the issues have changed since then, the steadfast and principled commitment of our progenitors is a supplicant for the work that lies ahead.

Engaged democratic citizenship is a steep climb as it requires substantially more than the private interests of citizens. An engaged citizen is one who takes an active role in contributing to the public good. They are active at many levels in their communities and seek to redress injustice, expand opportunities for all, and educate across the lifespan and in places near and far. That the engaged citizen is globally connected is by virtue of the fact that they inhabit and share a planet of limited resource, grave injustices, and pervasive inequality. Thus engaged, they reach beyond national frontiers in seeking true partners with similarly engaged citizens across the planet.

One potential danger of this wide view of citizenship is its tendency to be alien and alienating. No one lives globally in an everyday sense, but rather in particular places with specific concerns and needs. So to keep our focus firmly rooted in this community, we work locallyto critically and helpfully attend to our community. Perhaps Columbia’s preeminent anthropologist Margaret Mead said it best when she argued that the real value of working elsewhere and with others becomes evident upon homecoming, seeing new vistas nearby that our travels have allowed.

Grand visions require hard work and thoughtful reflection to be realized. Our reserve is deep, both in the talented and committed educators who staff our program, the enthusiastic and open students who join our endeavor, and our storied and accomplished graduates who enact our historic charge. We invite you, colleagues, students, community members and citizens, to join with us in this exciting and challenging journey.