The Sorry State of Social Studies Education

These are tough times for myself and other past and present social studies educators.

Exhibit A. Kathryn Schulz’s cogent explanation of everything that’s wrong with Netflix’s 10 hour long documentary “Making A Murderer”. Thanks Alison for the link, you saved me 9 hours and 20 minutes. Not quite sure how to spend those savings, maybe an extra hour of sleep for nine straight nights!

Excerpt 1, “. . . we still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project—bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers—comes to serve as our court of last resort.”

Excerpt 2, “. . . the documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory. The filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savory past, including multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence. They also omit important evidence against him, including the fact that Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery move Halbach’s S.U.V. into his junk yard, where Avery lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Investigators subsequently found DNA from Avery’s perspiration on the hood latch—evidence that would be nearly impossible to plant.

Perhaps because they are dodging inconvenient facts, Ricciardi and Demos are never able to present a coherent account of Halbach’s death, let alone multiple competing ones. Although “Making a Murderer” is structured chronologically, it fails to provide a clear time line of events, and it never answers such basic questions as when, where, and how Halbach died. Potentially critical issues are raised and summarily dropped; we hear about suspicious calls to and messages on Halbach’s cell phone, but these are never explored or even raised again. In the end, despite ten hours of running time, the story at the heart of “Making a Murderer” remains a muddle. Granted, real life is often a muddle, too, especially where crime is involved—but good reporters delineate the facts rather than contribute to the confusion.

Despite all this, “Making a Murderer” has left many viewers entirely convinced that Avery was framed. After the documentary aired, everyone from high-school students to celebrities jumped on the “Free Avery and Dassey” bandwagon.

Excerpt 3, “As of January 12th, more than four hundred thousand people had signed a petition to President Obama demanding that “Steven Avery should be exonerated at once by pardon.” That outrage could scarcely have been more misdirected. For one thing, it was addressed to the wrong person: Avery was convicted of state crimes, not federal ones, and the President does not have the power to pardon him. For another, it was the wrong demand. “Making a Murderer” may have presented a compelling case that Avery (and, more convincingly, Dassey) deserved a new trial, but it did not get anywhere close to establishing that either one should be exonerated.”

Exhibit B. The Republican frontrunner (tRf) repeatedly says we don’t win anymore and he promises to make America great again. His strategy of playing on people’s zenophobia, fears, and ethnocentrism is working. Most disheartening, few ask how a simplistic, single-minded focus on the U.S., will end up benefiting the U.S. in the medium and long-term. Similarly, few ask why international competition holds more promise than international cooperation.

Because his name wasn’t in the headline, tRf probably skipped this news story from last week titled “Slow Growth Clouds Progress on Global Poverty.”

“Unprecedented global economic growth over the past quarter century has lifted an estimated 1.25 billion people out of poverty, in one of the greatest recent achievements in human history.

. . . . In 1990, 37% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as living on less than $1.90 a day. Today, the bank estimates that 9.6% of the world is in this destitute state—agricultural workers and others who live in rural mud huts with no electricity or running water, work others’ land, and spend nearly all of their resources on food, often going hungry.”

We don’t win anymore only if “we” is defined in the most narrow of ways. Social studies education has failed when so many are so taken with someone who thinks so narrowly. If we had done a better job as social studies educators everyone reading about the stupifying progress on global poverty would immediately realize the positive ripple effects including slower population growth, reduced regional and international violence, increased security, military savings, and increased global trade.

Instead nationalism and demagoguery are winning the day. Given that, the profession and I get a big fat “F”.

2 thoughts on “The Sorry State of Social Studies Education

  1. I must confess that after watching the”Making a Murder” I was compelled to feel justice was not served but also couldn’t help but feel that there were voids in the series that should have focused more on Ms. Halbach’s death, especially a perspective much deeper from her family’s side than was given in the documentary. Thanks for exposing the flaws in this vis a vis Kathryn Schulz’s comments.

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