The Evolution of Social Studies Curricula for Elementary School Students

A term we hear more and more often today is “in our global society.” As we consider the evolution of social studies curricula in elementary schools over the decades, it is helpful for some of us to take a step back in time to when we were children. If you’re over 50, you qualify for this exercise in remembering social studies class.

Being an elementary school student in the 1950s meant having a prescribed set of subjects that changed very little from year to year. Most of third grade social studies was devoted to the study of Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, the Native Americans, and about the foods, rituals, and customs of the times. I will never forget churning butter in the classroom and putting it on the graham crackers our teacher provided. We each had a turn at churning the butter. The rich, creamy flavor was worth the effort and was responsible for my love of butter that, even today, no margarine can replace.

Back then, teaching children about the world around them and how it developed was a big part of education. We had to understand how our culture got started and how far it had come and how other cultures lived in the world, as well. The more hands-on it could be, the better. Our teachers were creative and enthusiastic about teaching us all they could about the big wide world and how it had evolved. That was in the 1950s, but social studies had become important as part of elementary school learning long before that.

After the Civil War, when public schooling was becoming more available to average people, a great interest in social studies developed. Freed slaves who could now attend school were eager to learn about the world. Working class whites wanted and needed an education that went beyond their immediate neighborhood. Citizen education became a right, and social studies informed the people about their own history and the how and why of their circumstances.

During the surge of immigration to the United States that supplied a developing country with workers for the railways and other modern systems that were helping grow the country at the time, immigrants who attended school needed to feel more like a part of their new environment. They wished to learn about America and the rest of the world. The emphasis for them was on American citizenship, and to be a citizen, they needed at least a basic knowledge of social studies. They needed to learn about democracy and its roots, values, and traditions.

Post-World War II and the late 40s brought its own challenges to teaching social studies in elementary schools. Reasons were being sought for the cruelties of Nazism and the resulting tragedies of the Holocaust; educators attempted to teach children about the issues of the times. The focus had grown to include what was happening in other countries around the world and U.S. involvement. Through the 60s and early 70s ways were being sought to end the war in Vietnam and avoid further military conflict. Learning about cultures was evolving even more to examine our role in the world.

Today, social studies focuses not only on the earliest ways of life in the new world, but more extensively on the cultures in our global society. Students today must also understand social studies from a multicultural perspective to learn about life in the 21st century. In our multicultural United States today, an elementary school student must be able to recognize and appreciate the diversity in our society. There is much more to learn in a social studies class today, and many more crucial reasons to learn about the values and traditions of people living outside our own borders.