UPDATED 6/30/11 4:20 p.m.

For Maya Soetoro-Ng, the social studies debate in Hawaii isn’t about student choice and electives. It’s about democracy.

“What we value most as a society is reflected in what we mandate,” writes the author, co-founder of Our Public School and education advocate in her letter opposing the Hawaii Department of Education‘s plan to reduce the number of social studies credits required for graduation.

“Americans love the idea of freedom and have fought and sacrificed in its name again and again, yet without showing students past struggles for human dignity as well as current avenues of political action, students neither appreciate the freedoms they have nor understand how to utilize individual freedom for the greater good.”

While it is valuable for students to have elective courses that allow them to shape their high school experience, they also need structure and guidance, writes President Barack Obama’s sister.

The revised graduation requirements would reduce the number of social studies credits from four to three, and increase the number of elective courses. If approved, the new requirements would be effective as soon as next year for incoming ninth-graders — the class of 2016.

In the last two weeks, the board and the Department of Education have heard strong public outcry against the reduction in social studies requirements in particular.

Soetoro-Ng was among more than 130 people to submit testimony to the Board of Education’s Student Achievement Committee regarding the proposal.

But she did not stop with her testimony to the board. She finds the matter so important that she wrote a two-page document outlining her concerns. The full text of her letter is below.

I am writing to you regarding Board Policy 4540, the “High School Graduation and Commencement Policy.” As a concerned citizen and social studies educator of many years, I submitted testimony against the proposed reduction of the minimum requirement for social studies from 4 credits to 3 credits. As is the case elsewhere, we in Hawaii are faced with the unenviable challenge of making difficult choices in education, but social studies has absorbed damaging cuts to make room for the demands of high stakes testing and the emphasis on strict outcomes.

As I travel around the world, I sometimes hear whispers of the stereotype of “the ugly American”, of American myopia; “They don’t care about the rest of the world,” I recently heard one young woman say, to which her friend replied, “They don’t know anything about the rest of the world.” I was profoundly saddened to hear this, I know that Americans are often better informed than their reputation suggests, but it is true that only two of my college students in a group of twenty could fill in more than a quarter of the world map. When I taught peace education to a group of high school students, I took inventory at the start of the semester and only one of my students had ever heard of Nelson Mandela or apartheid before taking the class. My 11th graders could only name two or three of our Constitutional Amendments and couldn’t offer examples of how the Constitution was used in a ‘real-world context.’ It took social studies classes to bring kids this critical knowledge about the world that these students inherit.

The reduction in the number of mandatory social studies classes would threaten all of the courses that teach our keiki these valuable lessons about civic engagement, service and what it means to be a member of our communities. We would send the wrong signal that classes in democratic participation and government are optional. Students need choice within classes, to be sure, but they also need structure and guidance from the adults who are responsible for helping to shape their formal education.

What we value most as a society is reflected in what we mandate. When given the choice, our students might choose something that seems easy or familiar, but in order for them to make good choices, we need to first show them the precariousness and value of open public engagement, civil rights, and social responsibility. Americans love the idea of freedom and have fought and sacrificed in its name again and again, yet without showing students past struggles for human dignity as well as current avenues of political action, students neither appreciate the freedoms they have nor understand how to utilize individual freedom for the greater good. Social studies is also what provides background context and relevance for math, science, and the arts.

It does not make sense for us to pare down on social studies requirements in our DOE schools when our private schools are recognizing the value of more social studies through courses that focus on spiritual and ethical development as well as individual and community responsibility. The number of mandatory DOE social studies courses credits in states varies from 3-4, but we have a unique culture in Hawaii that requires a local and indigenous history that many states don’t teach. We need to make room to teach it all and help kids shape and name local, national, and global identities and understandings.

As I wrote in June’s testimony, through social studies, students learn about themselves, about what they’ve inherited and what came before and, in learning all this, they develop reverence, appreciation, and pride. Students learn about their world and come to understand the global interconnectedness that is an unavoidable part of their present and future.

Through social studies, students learn to empathize and develop a sense of social responsibility and, in learning this, they become benevolent community members and begin lives of service and lifetime action. Students learn about economic systems and come closer to figuring out how to stimulate the economy and find new roads to economic productivity and prosperity. In learning the language of the law, students move from consideration of issues of social justice to productive action. Through social studies, students learn about the depths to which human beings can fall as well as the heights to which they can rise and, in learning this, they figure out how to avoid following the paths of the former and become inspired by examples the latter.

Through social studies, students solve problems and connect school with society. Students learn geography so that their vision and world don’t become too narrow and their path predictable. As students philosophize and think critically, their logic becomes more sophisticated. Students learn how to negotiate between ideas and people; they learn to deliberate and mediate, as well as persuade.

There is no subject more important and worthy of full recognition, placement, and support in our public schools. Please let us support social studies education, not reduce the number of required courses, and find another way to adjust to and accommodate the many demands schools face.

Aloha,

Maya Soetoro-Ng

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