This month, five Pennridge school board directors decided to cut Social Studies requirements in the district by 25%, causing much discussion in our community. And if history is any indicator, the controversy will not go away soon.
The plan’s supporters believe it will provide more flexibility to students to take other classes, while its detractors claim the move lowers the quality of education available to all students.
It is important to put the question in historical context, especially since history requirements themselves are on the chopping block. A look at the record shows that Pennridge has had four years of required Social Studies work since 1953 when eight municipalities started Pennridge High School. In December, the current Pennridge school board in a divided 5-4 vote cut the Social Studies graduation requirement to three years.
The district’s first day of school was Sept. 8, 1953. The Perkasie News Herald reported that school leaders had introduced “a program in public instruction that is as modern as state and local school authorities can devise and plan, and is designed to furnish every pupil an opportunity of acquiring knowledge second to none in the state.”
Social Studies was the backbone of that program during the Cold War era. In March 1954, Social Studies faculty members Wayne Helman, Grace Nesbitt, Frances Rufe, and Kenneth Smith wrote about their goals. “At the present time with the world full of unrest, it is particularly important that young people be taught the concepts and ideals of democracy,” they said. “At Pennridge High School, the Social Studies Department considers it its duty to map the progress of man — from barbarism to the present day — to pass on to the next generation, the successes, the failures, the problems, and the shining goals of mankind.”
“For this reason, Social Studies is a required subject in all of the four years in high school, irrespective of the course of the student’s choice. Students are taught that democracy is more than a political issue, for democracy believes in the dignity of man; in his right to live his life as he sees fit as long as he harms no one else; and in the belief that government is the tool of man, not man a tool of the state.”
With that original intent in mind, it is understandable why the Social Studies debate in the Pennridge area cuts across political party and ideological lines. I’ve seen Democrats, Independents and Republicans who never would agree about anything voice identical opinions on this topic.
To be fair, the board should be given a chance to develop a curriculum and show how a three-year program provides the same benefit as a four-year model. But fairness has nothing to do with politics, and with primary and November elections coming up for school board, the controversy will not be going away.
In 1958, school superintendent Robert Rosenkrance defended Pennridge from Pennsylvania Governor George Leader’s criticism that public schools did not teach social studies well. Rosenkrance said Pennridge far exceeded state standards, and students could not graduate without passing required Social Studies classes. “As educators we have an awesome task,” Rosenkrance said. “But every citizen should also feel some responsibility for the quality of our schools.”
How will citizens today take responsible action guaranteeing the quality of their schools? One way or another, we’ll have an answer about a year from now.
Scott Bomboy is an elected official in Perkasie Borough and has frequently written about historical and constitutional topics in local and national publications.