[Social Studies wanders into the break room, looking to have a few minutes of peace and quiet before heading back to work only to find Math already sitting, sipping slowly on a half-full mug of coffee.]
Social Studies: Oh, hi Math.
Math: Hi Social Studies. How’s things?
Social Studies: Oh you know. Same old, same old. Right now kids are learning about the Reconstruction Era.
Math: Ugh. I was never a huge fan of the Reconstruction Era. It was such a downer. The Civil War was so exciting and just jumped off the page and screen. I love Civil War movies and documentaries.
Social Studies: Yeah, I hear you. Reconstruction Era isn’t the kids’ favorite. Especially coming on the heels of the Civil War, which, though we all recognize the brutality and all, was a pretty amazing piece of history. It has a happy ending too. It’s the Return of the Jedi of U.S. History. The Reconstruction era is more Empire Strikes Back.
Math: For the record, I was a huge fan of Empire.
Social Studies: The thing is, the Reconstruction Era is a really interesting piece of history because its effects and after-effects are still directly relating to the American experience to this day. What about you, how are things with you?
Math: Well you know how it is. I’ve got a few kids who really like me and are good at me, and then a bunch of kids who see me as a barrier to them graduating.
Social Studies: Sounds pretty rough. I don’t usually hear people complaining about having to take three or four years of Social Studies. It seems like that’s an annual battle in most districts for Math.
Math: Yeah. It’s a shame. I feel like if only kids could get past the curriculum, they might really enjoy Math.
Social Studies: Not me. I was never any good at you.
[There is an awkward silence. Social Studies fills up a coffee mug from the carafe.]
Math: You know, Social Studies, we’re not so different, you and me.
Social Studies: How do you figure?
Math: So kids like you, right?
Social Studies: Let’s not get crazy here. It’s not like an army of students are breaking down the doors to take more Social Studies classes.
Math: I mean, generally speaking, broad brush, many kids like aspects of you.
Social Studies: Truth be told, they really like the war stuff: American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the big ones. World War I, the War of 1812, wars of the late 20th century not so much. And like I said, the Reconstruction era is definitely not their favorite, which is a shame because it’s such an important keystone of why America is what it is today. [Social studies thinks on this a bit.] Come to think of it, they really just like the wars that have been mythologized on the silver screen!
Math: But didn’t you just say that the Reconstruction Era is directly applicable to their lives and their experience?
Social Studies: Oh, no doubt.
Math: That’s exactly my point.
Social Studies: What point?
Math: Kids like you when you’re you. They aren’t more jazzed or less jazzed about you when they have to see the connection to their daily life, right? You don’t have to “dress up” the Civil War. I mean, certainly its after effects are pretty applicable, but it’s just interesting to learn about.
Social Studies: That’s true. Or, another way of putting it is to just say “kids like big wars.”
Math: What about World War I?
Social Studies: Not as much. I think it’s because World War I is such a convoluted narrative. And Steven Spielberg hasn’t made a movie about it yet! [They share another laugh.] There’s some truth to that though. Kids’ favorite pieces of History are the ones where there’s a great narrative, with heroes and villians, suspense, climaxes, and resolutions.
Math: See that’s my point. Kids love the Civil War, because it’s awesome. I remember being enthralled by the Civil War. I would watch movies, write creatively about the Civil War, read through encyclopedias (I’ve been around a while). And I’d never do that for the Reconstruction Era, even though it’s directly applicable. Math, as students see it, is completely devoid of a narrative.
Social Studies: I don’t see your point. And I’m not sure I’d use the phrase “the Civil War was awesome.” There’s got to be a better way to put that.
Math: My point is that every freaking district is telling kids that my primary and only value is in an applied sense. They tell kids, “Math is great because you might use it when you’re an Engineer, someday far into the future.” There’s a push to make everything “real-world”, thereby implying that’s my only value: to be the fuel for better, cooler, more important disciplines.
Social Studies: How are districts telling kids that?
Math: Through their textbooks, instructional planning guides, mission statements, the three R’s, with an emphasis on “relevance.”
Social Studies: Are you suggesting relevance is a bad thing? I try to be relevant all the time: “Whoever forgets history is doomed to repeat it.” I mean, think about how things like the Spanish Inquisition and the Age of Imperialism mirror today’s current events.
Math: Right. You recognize patterns and you learn life lessons from Social Studies, no question. I’m saying you can do the same in Math. I’m not saying Social Studies is irrelevant, but that it’s relevant in a different way than math is expected to be. Math is expected to be applicable so you can find a job that pays you a lot of money 10 years down the road. And that carrot of “you’ll make a lot of money as an Engineer 10 years from now” is a pretty sorry looking carrot to most kids.
Social Studies: This is turning into quite the pity party.
Math: Sorry. I know. You just came in for some coffee.
Social Studies: It’s ok. I understand your point. Social Studies wouldn’t be very exciting if all we did was study how the Reconstruction Era is applicable to the American Experience, or if the only promise of interestingness was in getting an applicable job in a decade.
Math: Right. And look, that question, “how does the Reconstruction Era define the American Experience”, is a great question and an interesting one and worth volumes of scholarly study.
Social Studies: Just like using Auto-CAD to construct blueprints can also be a fun math activity.
Math: Exactly. The problem is, in addition you’re able to just explore stuff like the Civil War, which, while it certainly also defines the American Experience, kids are allowed to just… research it and enjoy it for Social Studies’ sake. Kids like it, not because they have to define how it applies to them personally, but just because it’s freaking exciting! And it tells a great story.
Social Studies: Frankly, you sound a little envious.
Math: Well, I sort of am. You get to tell fun stories. I don’t often get to tell mathematical stories, even though they exist everywhere.
Social Studies: Mathematical stories? What is a mathematical story? Are referring to “story problems”? Because if you are, I’ve got bad news: those are usually kids’ least favorite part of you.
Math: See, “story problems”; that’s another term, like “relevance”, that’s been co-opted. I’m not talking about “a train leaves Chicago at 3:00 pm traveling east” problems. I’m talking about mathematical stories like, “when does it make sense to have a stoplight or stopsign at an intersection?”
Social Studies: There’s a problem with your argument though. You suggest that You would be more fun if you weren’t forced to be applied all the time. But that implies that you should just be taught as a bunch of standalone math problems and equations and stuff. And I’m sorry, but that’s not terribly fun either. I think the fallacy in your argument is self-evident. You’re saying “math would be more fun if kids did more math.”
Math: Yes. I’m saying that. The thing is, you and I have a different definition of “Math”.
Social Studies: Well, most people see themselves differently than others do. This is very self-realizing of you. And so to recap, the terms that have been co-opted are “relevance”, “story problems” and “math”? Any others?
Math: Are you being sarcastic?
Social Studies: A bit.
Math: When you think of “Math” you’re thinking of a textbook page with 50 equations with the instructions that say “Solve for x.”
Social Studies: Yes. That’s what I’m thinking of. And then you follow some steps and come up with a value for x, assuming you follow the steps correctly.
Math: That’s not math!
Social Studies: Of course it is! Equations, variables, etcetera, that’s math. That’s You, dude.
Math: That’s Math as it’s presented in the curriculum. But math is so much more than that. It’s about recognizing patterns, making arguments, developing logical frameworks of thinking. Those are the lessons students should be learning in Math. In many ways, it’s the exact opposite of the “Solve for x” problems. It’s messy. There are fits and starts. If students are just applying the same steps to get from Point A to Point B, then they’re not really discovering anything, and therefore not really learning or enjoying anything. It would be as if you took a graphic designer and put him on a 1950’s style assembly line and said “here are the three things you do, do them over and over again and maybe in 10 years you’ll get a good job (but you’ll have to do this a million more times between now and then).” Kids aren’t wired for that kind of work, and with todays’ tools they shouldn’t be doing that kind of work anyway.
Social Studies: I think I’m starting to get what you’re saying. There’s certainly lessons throughout History that don’t need to be grafted onto a “real-world” application.
Math: Like what?
Social Studies: Take the Holocaust, for example.
Social Studies: Hear me out. I don’t think anyone argues against the inherent value of learning about the Holocaust. It was a horrific act that we, as humanity, need to accept and think about what it means for humanity. The value of learning about it is realized immediately. You don’t need to dress it up into a “relevant” curriculum. It’s relevant because there are life lessons to learn about what happens when people are poor and humiliated, not because it’ll help you find a job in 10 years.
Math: True. Ick. I don’t even want to think about what a grafted-on “relevance” would look like for that. It would be …. disrespectful. And gross.
Social Studies: It sure would be. Sorry to use that as an example, but I think the reason kids like me more than you is because with all sorts of aspects of Social Studies, from the Ancient Romans to the financial meltdown of 2008, is that the lessons stem directly from the content. They don’t have to be forced in to some other, “real world” context. The value of Social Studies lies in recognizing patterns in human behavior, not from making travel brochures.
Math: So how did it get that way for you?
Social Studies: I think in a weird way, it’s because Social Studies from the outset, never purported to be anything more than what it is: lessons from the echoes of history.
Math: While math has supposedly been tied to vocations all along.
Social Studies: Right.
[Math and Social Studies glance at the clock above the fridge in the break room.]
Math: Well, I guess I better get back to the grind.
Social Studies: Back to the salt mines. It was good talking with you, Math. And I think you’re right: you and me maybe aren’t that different.
[English Language Arts pops in.]
ELA: “You and I.”
Social Studies: Sorry. You and I aren’t that different.
Math: I think in an ideal world, we wouldn’t be.