by David Sherrin
The creators of the New York State Common Core 9-12 Social Studies Framework fulfilled a task that I never would have wished for myself. At my former school, I once participated in an endeavor to develop a common 9-10 social studies curriculum. After a week of debate amongst a half-dozen like-minded progressive educators, we emerged with a bland, somewhat insipid program that appeared suspiciously similar to the traditional Global History and Geography course. It was the only option that could achieve any level of consensus. It became a solid, if somewhat forgettable, set of units and lessons that appeased all but fully pleased and inspired no one.
The men and women who drafted the state-wide social studies framework faced an even more daunting obstacle: developing a core curriculum that could meet the needs of every teacher and student from Brooklyn to Plattsburgh. I am sure that the participants are smart, dedicated, and hopeful individuals who aspired to make a lasting contribution to education. The first thirty pages, which deal with skills and the incorporation of the Common Core, are thoughtful, productive, and extremely relevant.
The problem from the start, though, is that their mission was self-destructive, like winding through a labyrinth with no possible exit. This became the case as soon as they delved into content. The reason is simple: creating a unified curriculum with a core knowledge in world history that every student must know, and every teacher must teach, betrays the very foundations of inquiry, curiosity, and depth that lies at the heart of historical thinking. The goal of any historian, we must realize, is not to learn what everyone else knows but rather to acquire new and specific knowledge that can make a real contribution to our collective memory of the past.
Here are two examples of what I mean. The curriculum takes areas of historical doubt and debate (which historians call historiography) and turns them into undisputed fact. This seems to happen most often in the murky realm of “cause and effect.” In the unit on the Silk Road, which would include the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, one key understanding from the framework is that “greater economic power increased political and military power, which enabled the expansion of empires.” But the Mongols were really nomadic horsemen who conquered lands of vastly greater economic strength. Historical thinking would ask students to question that cause-effect relationship.
Likewise, in the unit on absolutism, the framers ask students to know that “the increased wealth generated by Atlantic trade networks enabled European monarchs to consolidate power leading to the rise of absolutist governments.” A strong teacher would push teenagers to question the cause-effect relationship since some absolute monarchies existed before Atlantic trade networks and some took hold in places like Prussia and Russia, where there were no Atlantic networks. The students might even inquire as to whether “absolutism” is a valid historical concept given the strong Cortes (assembly) in Philip II’s Spain and the Parliament in England under Henry VIII.
In my next piece, I will articulate an alternative vision for what a global history course could look like.
David Sherrin is a Social Studies teacher and department coordinator at Harvest Collegiate. He has ten years of experience teaching in New York City schools. His passion is to engage all students in learning about the complexities of the past and in participating in deep historical, ethical, and historiographical debates, often through the use of role-playing and the analysis of key primary and secondary sources.