Woodrow Wilson and Americans’ Lack of Historical Literacy

Williamson Evers:

We need to hold him responsible for the fact that many Americans don’t know the timeline of world or American history and don’t know much about how constitutional government works in the United States: One hundred years ago, in 1916, the Wilson administration put the clout of the federal government behind a new curricular development – social studies.

In this project, the Wilson administration worked with a prominent figure from the world of philanthropy, Thomas Jesse Jones. A well-known progressive educator, Jones, who was white, had spent time teaching and developing the curriculum at the Hampton Institute, a vocationally oriented, historically black college in Virginia. While at Hampton, Jones created the social-studies curriculum.

Jones was responsible for popularizing the term “social studies” for this new conglomeration of subject matter. In fact, Jones headed the panel that wrote an influential 1916 federal report on social studies, a report that set the course for the new field and is widely acknowledged as still influential to this day.

Because Jones was a federal education official at the time, the social-studies report — although created by a non-federal group, the Committee on Social Studies — was issued as a bulletin of the U.S. Bureau of Education. In the report, the federal education agency generously offered to act as a center for disseminating information on textbooks that took the new “social studies” approach.

#share#“Social studies” is a cross-disciplinary K–12 curriculum of history, civics, geography, and related subjects — but, crucially, the curriculum is focused not on chronology or governmental structure and processes; the report proposed that social-studies teachers should focus on “concrete problems” that are “of vital importance to society.”