What IS “Social Studies”?

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you look at your own discipline and can’t articulate what, exactly, the point of it is.

Yes, I know which topics social studies covers. History, civics, geography, world cultures, reading maps, traffic/pedestrian laws, etc. Socialstudies.org explains, “Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics…” etc. (I’m sure you did a lot of archaeology back in elementary school.)

But what is the point of lumping all of these things together? Why put psychology, geography, and law into the same book, and how on earth is that coordinated or systematic?

The points of some other school subjects are obvious. Reading and writing allow you to decode and encode information, a process that has massively expanded the human ability to learn and “remember” things by freeing us from the physical constraints of our personal memories. We can learn from men who lived a thousand years ago or a thousand miles away, and add our bit to the Great Conversation that stretches back to Homer and Moses.

Maths allow us to quantify and measure the world, from “How much do I owe the IRS this year?” to “Will this rocket land on the moon?” (It is also, like fiction, pleasurable for its own sake.) And science and engineering, of course, allow us to make and apply factual observations about the real world–everything from “Rocks accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8m/s^2” to “This bridge is going to collapse.”

But what is social studies? The question bugged me for months, until Napoleon Chagnon–or more accurately, the Yanomamo–provided an answer.

Chagnon is a anthropologist who carefully documented Yanomamo homicide and birth rates, and found that the Yanomamo men who had killed the most people went on to father the most children–providing evidence for natural selection pressures making the Yanomamo more violent and homicidal over time, and busting the “primitive peoples are all lovely egalitarians with no crime or murder” myth.

In an interview I read recently, Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo made of him, this random white guy who came to live in their village. Why was he there? Chagnon replied that they thought he had come:

“To learn how to be human.”

Sometimes we anthropologists lose the signal in the noise. We think our purpose is to document primitive tribes before they go extinct (and that is part of our purpose.) But the Yanomamo are correct: the real reason we come is to learn how to be human.

All of school has one purpose: to prepare the child for adulthood.

The point of social studies is prepare the child for full, adult membership in their society. You must learn the norms, morals, and laws of your society. The history and geography of your society. You learn not just “How a bill becomes a law” but why a bill becomes a law. If you are religious, your child will also learn about the history and moral teachings of their religion.

Most religions have some kind of ceremony that marks the beginning of religious adulthood. For example, many churches practice the rite of Confirmation, in which teens reaffirm their commitment to Christ and become full members of the congregation. Adult Baptism functions similarly in some denominations.

Judaism has the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah, whose implications are quite clearly articulated. When a child turns 13 (or in some cases, 12,) they are now expected to be moral actors, responsible for their own behavior. They now make their own decisions about following Jewish law, religious duties, and morality.

But there’s an upside: the teen is also now able to part of a minyan, the 10-person group required for (certain) Jewish prayers, Torah legal study; can marry*; and can testify before a Rabbinic court.

*Local laws still apply.

In short, the ceremony marks the child’s entry into the world of adults and full membership in their society. (Note: obviously 13 yr olds are not treated identically to 33 yr olds; there are other ceremonies that mark the path to maturity.)

Whatever your personal beliefs, the point of Social Studies is to prepare your child for full membership in society.

A society is not merely an aggregation of people who happen to live near each other and observe the same traffic laws (though that is important.) It is a coherent group that believes in itself, has a common culture, language, history, and even literature (often going back thousands of years) about its heroes, philosophy, and values.

To be part of society is to be part of that Great Conversation I referenced above.

But what exactly society is–and who is included in it–is a hotly debated question. Is America the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, or is it a deeply racist society built on slavery and genocide? As America’s citizens become more diverse, how do these newcomers fit into society? Should we expand the canon of Great Books to reflect our more diverse population? (If you’re not American, just substitute your own country.)

These debates can make finding good Social Studies resources tricky. Young students should not be lied to about their ancestors, but neither should they be subjected to a depressing litany of their ancestors’ sins. You cannot become a functional, contributing member of a society you’ve been taught to hate or be ashamed of.

Too often, I think, students are treated to a lop-sided curriculum in which their ancestors’ good deeds are held up as “universal” accomplishments while their sins are blamed on the group as a whole. The result is a notion that they “have no culture” or that their people have done nothing good for humanity and should be stricken from the Earth.

This is not how healthy societies socialize their children.

If you are using a pre-packaged curriculum, it should be reasonably easy to check whether the makers hold similar values as yourself. If you use a more free-form method (like I do,) it gets harder. For example, YouTube* is a great source for educational videos about all sorts of topics–math, grammar, exoplanets, etc.–so I tried looking up videos on American history. Some were good–and some were bad.

*Use sensible supervision

For example, here’s a video that looked good on the thumbnail, but turned out quite bad:

From the description:

In which John Green teaches you about the Wild, Wild, West, which as it turns out, wasn’t as wild as it seemed in the movies. When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner. The self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie in search of wandering calves, or the half-addled prospector who has broken from reality thanks to the solitude of his single-minded quest for gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations. Not cool, American pioneers.

Let’s work through this line by line. What is the author’s first priority: teaching you something new about the West, or telling you that the things you believe are wrong?

Do you think it would be a good idea to start a math lesson by proclaiming, “Hey kids, I bet you get a lot of math problems wrong”? No. Don’t start a social studies lesson that way, either.

There is no good reason to spend valuable time bringing up incorrect ideas simply because a child might hold them; you should always try to impart correct information and dispel incorrect ideas if the child actually holds them. Otherwise the child is left not with a foundation of solid knowledge, but with what they thought they knew in tatters, with very little to replace it.

Second, is the Western movie genre really so prominent these days that we must combat the pernicious lies of John Wayne and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know about you, but I worry more about my kids picking up myths from Pokemon than from a genre whose popularity dropped off a cliff sometime back in the 80s.

“We are conditioned to think of the loner.” Conditioned. Yes, this man thinks that you have been trained like a dog to salivate at the ringing of a Western-themed bell, the word “loner” popping into your head. The inclusion of random psychology terms where they don’t belong is pseudo-intellectual garbage.

Updated values chart!

The idea of the “loner” cowboy and prospector, even in their mythologized form, is closer to the reality than the picture he draws. On the scale of nations, the US is actually one of the world’s most indivdualist, currently outranked only by Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden.

Without individualism, you don’t get the notion of private property. In many non-Western societies, land, herds, and other wealth is held collectively by the family or clan, making it nearly impossible for one person (or nuclear family) to cash out his share, buy a wagon, and head West.

I have been reading Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, an ethnography of rural Appalachia published in 1913. Here is a bit from the introduction:

The Southern highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.

On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? …

The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American people, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsam, and the Great Smoky Mountains. …For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are a sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways. …

The mountaineers of the South are marked apart from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation. So true is this that they call all outsiders “furriners.” It matters not whether your descent be from Puritan or Cavalier, whether you come from Boston or Chicago, Savannah or New Orleans, in the mountains you are a “furriner.” A traveler, puzzled and scandalized at this, asked a native of the Cumberlands what he would call a “Dutchman or a Dago.” The fellow studied a bit and then replied: “Them’s the outlandish.” …

As a foretaste, in the three and a half miles crossing Little House and Big House mountains, one ascends 2,200 feet, descends 1,400, climbs again 1,600, and goes down 2,000 feet on the far side. Beyond lie steep and narrow ridges athwart the way, paralleling each other like waves at sea. Ten distinct mountain chains are scaled and descended in the next forty miles. …

The only roads follow the beds of tortuous and rock-strewn water courses, which may be nearly dry when you start out in the morning, but within an hour may be raging torrents. There are no bridges. One may ford a dozen times in a mile. A spring “tide” will stop all travel, even from neighbor to neighbor, for a day or two at a time. Buggies and carriages are unheard of. In many districts the only means of transportation is with saddlebags on horseback, or with a “tow sack” afoot. If the pedestrian tries a short-cut he will learn what the natives mean when they say: “Goin’ up, you can might’ nigh stand up straight and bite the ground; goin’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” …

Such difficulties of intercommunication are enough to explain the isolation of the mountaineers. In the more remote regions this loneliness reaches a degree almost unbelievable. Miss Ellen Semple, in a fine monograph published in[Pg 23] the Geographical Journal, of London, in 1901, gave us some examples:

“These Kentucky mountaineers are not only cut off from the outside world, but they are separated from each other. Each is confined to his own locality, and finds his little world within a radius of a few miles from his cabin. There are many men in these mountains who have never seen a town, or even the poor village that constitutes their county-seat…. The women … are almost as rooted as the trees. We met one woman who, during the twelve years of her married life, had lived only ten miles across the mountain from her own home, but had never in this time been back home to visit her father and mother. Another back in Perry county told me she had never been farther from home than Hazard, the county-seat, which is only six miles distant. Another had never been to the post-office, four miles away; and another had never seen the ford of the Rockcastle River, only two miles from her home, and marked, moreover, by the country store of the district.”

When I first went into the Smokies, I stopped one night in a single-room log cabin, and soon had the good people absorbed in my tales of travel beyond the seas. Finally the housewife said to me, with pathetic resignation: “Bushnell’s the furdest ever I’ve been.” Bushnell, at that time, was a hamlet of thirty people, only seven miles from where we sat. When I lived alone on “the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of[Pg 24] Hazel Creek,” there were women in the neighborhood, young and old, who had never seen a railroad, and men who had never boarded a train, although the Murphy branch ran within sixteen miles of our post-office.

And that’s just Appalachia. What sorts of men and women do you think settled the Rockies or headed to the Yukon? Big, gregarious families that valued their connections to society at large?

Then there are the railroads. The video makes a big deal about the railroads being funded by the government, as proof that Americans weren’t “individuals” but part of some grand collectivist society.

Over in reality, societies with more collectivist values, like Pakistan, don’t undertake big national projects. In those societies, your loyalty is to your clan or kin group, and the operative level of social planning and policy is the clan. Big projects that benefit lots of people, not just particular kin networks, tend not to get funded because people do not see themselves as individuals acting within a larger nation that can do big projects that benefit individual people. Big infrastructure projects, especially in the 1800s, were almost entirely limited to societies with highly individualistic values.

Finally we have the genocide of the American Indians. Yes, some were definitely killed; the past is full of sins. But “You’re wrong, your self-image is wrong, and your ancestors were murderers,” is not a good way to introduce the topic.

It’s a pity the video was not good; the animation was well-done. It turns out that people have far more strident opinions about “Was Westward Expansion Just?” than “Is Pi Irrational?”

I also watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series, The Who Was? Show, based on the popular line of children’s biographies. It was an atrocity, and not just because of the fart jokes. The episode paired Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was depicted respectfully, and as the frequent victim of British racism. Franklin was depicted as a buffoon who hogged the spotlight and tried to steal or take credit for other people’s ideas.

It made me regret buying a biography of Marie Curie last week.

If your children are too young to read first-hand ethnographic accounts of Appalachia and the frontier, what do I recommend instead? Of course there are thousands of quality books out there, and more published every day, but here are a few:

A Child’s Introduction to The World

The Usborne Book of Living Long Ago: Everyday Life Through the Ages

What Your [X] Grader Needs to Know So far I like these, but I have not read them all the way through.

DK: When on Earth?

More important than individual resources, though, is the attitude you bring to the subject.


Before we finish, I’d like to note that “America” isn’t actually the society I feel the closest connection to. After all, there are a lot of people here whom I don’t like. The government has a habit of sending loyal citizens to die in stupid wars and denying their medical treatment when they return, and I don’t even know if the country will still exist in meaningful form in 30 years. I think of my society as more “Civilization,” or specifically, “People engaged in the advancement of knowledge.”


Homeschooling Corner: Flying Kites

We had a lovely, windy day, so we grabbed the kites, invited the neighbors, and headed out to the park.

Homeschooling does put additional responsibility on the parents to help their kids socialize. That doesn’t mean homeschooled kids are necessarily at a disadvantage viz their typically-schooled peers when it comes to comes to socializing (I went to regular school and still managed to be terribly socialized;) it’s just one more thing homeschooling parents have to keep in mind. So I am glad that we’ve had the good luck recently to make several friends in the neighborhood.

I’ve been looking for good, educational YouTube channels. Now I haven’t watched every video on these channels and I make no guarantees, but they seem good so far:

Welch Labs:

Welch Labs also has a website with a free downloadable workbook that accompanies their videos about imaginary numbers. It’s a good workbook and I’m working through it now.

TedEd, eg:

VSauce, eg:

Numberphile, eg:

The King of Random, eg:

We finished DK’s Coding in Scratch Projects Workbook and started Coding in Scratch: Games Workbook, which is slightly more advanced (longer projects.)

The Usborne Times Tables Activity Book is a rare find: a book that actually makes multiplication vaguely fun. Luckily there’s no one, set age when kids need to learn their multiplication tables–so multiple kids can practice their tables together.

In math we’ve also been working with number lines, concept like infinity (countable and uncountable,) infinitesimals, division, square roots, imaginary numbers, multi-digit addition and subtraction, graphing points and lines on the coordinate plane, and simple functions like Y=X^2. (Any kid who has learned addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can plot simple functions.)

We started work with the cuisenaire rods, which I hope to continue–I can’t find our set on Amazon, but these are similar. We’re also using Alexander Warren’s book You can Count on it: A Mentor’s Arithmetic Patterns for Elementary Students for cusienaire activites.

If you’re looking for board game to play with elementary-aged kids, Bejeweled Blitz is actually pretty good. Two players compete to place tiles on the board to match 3 (or more) gems, in a row or up and down. (A clever play can thus complete two rows at once.) We play with slightly modified rules. (Note: this game is actually pretty hard for people who struggle with rotating objects in their heads.)

Picture Sudoku is fun for little kids (and probably comes in whatever cartoon characters you like,) while KenKen and magic squares and the like are good for older kids (I always loved logic puzzles when I was a kid, so I’d like to get a book of those.)

I’ve found a website called Memrise which seems good for learning foreign languages if you don’t have access to a tutor or know somene who speaks the language you want to learn. They probably have an app for phones or tablets, so kids could practice their foreign langauge on-the-go. (Likewise, I should stow our spelling book in the car and use car rides as a chance to quiz them.)

And of course we’re still reading Professor Astro Cat/working in the workbook, which involves plenty of writing.

For Social Studies we’ve been reading about fall holidays.

Hope you all have a lovely October! What are some of your favorite educational videos?


Homeschooling Corner: Introducing Mr. Poop & Custom Dice

I happened to have a poop-shaped pinata sitting around (Why? Look, sometimes these things just happen) of the pull-the-flap-on-the-bottom variety rather than the smash-it-with-a-bat kind, so I decided to add a little fun to our day by filling Mr. Poop with school-related ideas written on strips of paper. Give Mr. Poop a shake and a scrap of paper flutters out–today’s idea was to design your own game, which the kids are working on now.

I’ve decided to incorporate the Cub Scout handbooks–which have lots of useful information about subjects like first aid, water safety, civics, history, etc.–into our rotation. (The Cub Scouts have a different handbook for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.) Today we learned about knots–mostly square knots–complemented with The Camper’s Knot Tying Game. Knots are practical for anyone, but also good practice for kids with fine motor difficulties.

Over in Professor Astro Cat, we’re collecting space dust, keeping a moon journal (the eclipse was well-timed for this) and made impact craters in the sandbox. The book recommends spreading out newspaper indoors and using flour or cocoa powder, but sand, outside, is much easier to clean up. (Walmart sells beautiful colored sand for like $4 a bag. I sprinkled some green on top of the regular brown sandbox sand to simulate Earth’s surface.)

Custom Dice

There are lots of interesting dice–math dice, fraction dice, letter dice, place value dice, etc. Customized dice are easy to make: just take a cube (you probably have a building block or letter cube or some Legos lying around,) cover it with paper, and write whatever you want on the faces. (Note it is probably best to write on the paper before applying tape, as many pens won’t write properly on tape.) I have a custom die with +,-, <, and division signs on it that I use along with custom “numbers larger than six” dice for math games. (“Looks like you rolled 5,000,000,000 divided by 7,000!”) (For smaller kids, you may want to stick to + and -.)

I’m still trying to work out good ways to teach history. I’ve got some rudimentary ideas, but I’ll save them for later.

Homeschooling Corner

Welcome! Highly unscientific polling has revealed an interest in a regular or semi-regular feature focused on homeschooling.

Note that I am NOT some homeschooling guru with years of experience. We are just beginning, so I want some other people to discuss things with. I don’t have a curriculum picked out nor a coherent “philosophy,” but I am SO EXCITED about all of the things I have to teach I couldn’t even list them all.

I was thinking of starting with just a focus on what has been successful this week–which books/websites/projects we liked–and perhaps what was unsuccessful. I invite all of you to come and share your thoughts, ideas, questions, philosophies, recommendations, etc. Parents whose kids are attending regular schools but want to talk about learning materials are also welcome.

One request: Please no knee-jerk bashing of public schools or teachers. (I just find this really annoying.) Thoughtful, well-reasoned critique of mainstream schooling are fine, but let’s try to focus on the homeschooling.

This week’s successes:

DK Workbooks: Coding with Scratch (workbook) has been an amazing success.

Like many parents, I thought it’d be useful to learn some basic coding, but have no idea where to start. I once read HTML for dummies, but I don’t know my CSS from Perl, much less what’s best for kids.

After a bit of searching, I decided to try the the DK Coding with Scratch series. (This particular workbook is aimed at kids 6-9 yrs old, but there are others in the series.)

Scratch is a free, simple, child-friendly coding program available online at https://scratch.mit.edu/. You don’t need the workbook to use Scratch, (it’s just a helpful supplement.) There are also lots of helpful Youtube videos for the enterprising young coder.

Note: my kids really want to code because they want to make their own video games.

In general, I have found that toys and games that claim they will teach your kids to code actually won’t. (Eg, Robot Turtles.) Some of these games are a ton of fun anyway, I just wouldn’t expect to become a great coder that way.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space is as good as it looks. Target market is 8-11 years old. There’s a lot of information per page, so we’re reading and discussing a few pages each day.

There are two other books in the series, Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Activity Book, which I’m hoping will make a good companion to this one, and Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure, which looks like it fills the desperately needed “quantum physics for kids” niche.)

I’m still trying to figure out how to do hands-on science activities without spending a bundle. Most of the “little labs” type science kits look fun, but don’t pack a lot of educational bang for your buck. For example, today we built a compass (it cost $10 at the toy store, not the $205 someone is trying charge on Amazon.) This was fun and I really like the little model, but it also took about 5 minutes to snap the pieces together and we can’t actually carry it around to use it like a real compass.

Plus, most of these labs are basically single-use items. I like toys with a sciency-theme, but they’re too expensive to run the whole science curriculum off of.

Oh, sure, I hand them a page of math problems and they start squawking at me like chickens. But bedtime rolls around and they’re like, “Where’s our Bedtime Math? Can’t we do one more page? One more problem? Please?”

There are only three math problems every other page (though this does add up to over 100 problems,) the presentation is fun, and the kids like the book better than going to sleep.

The book offers easy, medium, and hard problems in each section, so it works for kids between the ages of about 4 and 10.

There’s an inherent tension in education between emphasizing subjects that kids are already good at and working on the ones they’re bad at. The former gives kids a chance to excel, build confidence, and of course actually get good at something, while the latter is often an annoying pain in the butt but nevertheless necessary.


Since we’ve just started and are still getting in the swing of things, I’m trying to focus primarily on the things they’re good at and enjoy and have just a little daily focus on the things they’re weak at.

I’d like to find a good typing tutor (I’ll probably be trying several out soon) because watching the kids hunt-and-peck at the keyboard makes my hair stand on end. I’d also like to find a good way to hold up workbooks next to the computer to make using the DK books easier.

That’s about it, so I’ll open the floor to you guys.