Social studies meets social justice

Social studies education and research in the United States must fully embrace social justice and equity and abandon the dangerous myths of white, male-dominated manifest destiny and American exceptionalism.

This is the powerful thesis of a book of essays conceived and edited by three professors in the University of Washington Bothell’s School of Educational Studies. The book has now been honored by a national education association.

(l-r) Book co-editors from the School of Educational Studies: Natasha Hakimali Merchant, assistant professor; Sarah Shear, associate professor; Wayne Au, interim dean

Published in June 2022 by Myers Education Press, “Insurgent Social Studies: Scholar-Educators Disrupting Erasure and Marginality” was edited by Dr. Wayne Au, Dr. Natasha Hakimali Merchant and Dr. Sarah B. Shear. The three are faculty experts in multicultural and social studies education, and each has also spent time teaching social studies in K-12 schools.

Accurate and inclusive

The book offers critiques of longstanding problems in social studies education, as well as useful interventions for educators working to make social studies pedagogy more accurate and inclusive, said Shear, an associate professor.

“Social studies curriculum has largely and problematically amplified white settler supremacist ideology. In this book, we demonstrate why this continues to be harmful to students and communities,” Shear said. “We also demonstrate how social studies can change.”

The three editors state their case plainly in a co-written introductory chapter titled “We Won’t Wait Any Longer: An Introduction and Invitation to Insurgency in Social Studies.”

“The social studies problem is a violent act of white settler supremacy that is repeated generation after generation in classrooms across the United States from kindergarten through graduate school and in media spaces too many to list,” they write.

“Although there have been movements of resistance and to varying degrees successes, to address these crimes, social studies education is still largely a curriculum designed to erase or otherwise marginalize voices, bodies and experiences not accepted by or created for the benefit of white supremacist society.”

Activism themes

The book’s 10 chapters each take up an aspect of the overarching theme, starting with an essay by the Turtle Island Social Studies Collective, of which Shear is a member, titled “Insurgence Must Be Red: Connecting Indigenous Studies and Social Studies Education for Anticolonial Praxis.” Praxis is defined as practice, apart from theory.

The essay titled “Unsatisfied: The Conceptual Terrain of De-Essentializing Islam in Social Studies” aims to “unearth some of the complexities in various approaches to teaching about Islam in social studies,” said Merchant, an assistant professor.

Merchant said the piece then asks: “If we shift our understanding of these base-categories themselves … if we try to understand Islam outside of colonial conceptions and logics, how then can we imagine a pedagogical approach to it in the social studies?”

Other chapters explore topics such as learning from the Black Lives Matter movement, amplifying Latinx voices, correcting distorted views of Asian Americans, clarifying the role of Palestine and Palestinians, social studies education as a state tool in the War on Terror and more.

The book’s final chapter, “Insurgent Social Studies and Dangerous Citizenship,” returns to the theme of educator as reform activist.

Outstanding book award

The book has been met with praise and positive reviews.

“The call for a more radical social studies has been clear since even before the field’s existence,” wrote LaGarrett King of the University of Buffalo. “‘Insurgent Social Studies’ is building from the radical tradition of scholars and teachers who have used the classroom to challenge how humanity is defined. … This book forces us to rethink and reconsider what is social studies education.”

Now, the Society of Professors of Education has honored “Insurgent Social Studies” with a 2023 Outstanding Book Award. This national organization, formerly called the Society of College Teachers of Education, was formed in 1902 to provide a forum for addressing issues facing the discipline and vocation of education.

In choosing the awards, reviewers consider how texts show “the relationship between education and the social complexities in which schools are contextualized” as well as how they foster inquiry into the history and future of teaching and learning. The book awards were announced on April 15, during the society’s annual convention.

Education reform

Au, interim dean of the School of Educational Studies, said the idea behind the book came from a concept he termed a “pedagogy of insurgency” that views teachers as active players in reforming and reframing education.

The project then came into clearer focus during conversations with Shear about problems with social studies research, education and teacher training, he said.

A “pedagogy of insurgency,” the editors write, “seeks to understand and at least partially explain the ways that teachers have the power, through pedagogy, curriculum and community activism, to actively resist injustice while also working toward a more radically just world.”

Gathering material for the volume was relatively easy because the contributors are all committed to moving the field of social studies education forward, Au said. The biggest obstacle, if any, was the pandemic. “It just made everybody’s work slower. The project took two and a half years to fully come together.”

Critical perspectives

Who is the book’s audience? Au said it is primarily “future social studies teachers who might be sitting in a graduate classroom or even undergraduate classroom … but I think current social studies teachers, in the classroom now, could definitely benefit from this as well.”

Merchant said the editors agreed on “wanting to prioritize those perspectives which are under the threat of erasure of being diluted by dominant forces of white supremacy culture within social studies.

“We wanted to highlight the work of contemporary scholars who, despite considerable resistance, have unabashedly called attention to discomforting truths that force change in thought and practice,” Merchant said.

As Au summed up, “It feels like this project has been done in a way that will really push the boundaries of how we understand social studies, and I think that’s really important.

“This is a moment to fight for the actual truth in the complexity of United States history. And we want to encourage teachers — current and future — to take up that fight.”

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