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Preaching science or promoting citizenship? Teaching sociology in high school

Michael A DeCesare, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation seeks to answer two questions. First, why is an introductory sociology course offered in only some high schools? Second, what are the larger historical, intellectual, and structural forces that have shaped and currently shape the content and objectives of high school sociology courses, and how have they exerted an influence? The first question has been answered only once before and the second has never been asked. Regarding the first, I argue that teacher changes and shortages, students' needs and desires, ongoing curriculum revision, the movement toward standardized testing, and the school budget all play a role in determining whether sociology is offered in a particular school from one year to the next. My attempt to answer the second research question brings together the subfields of the sociology of sociology and the scholarship of teaching and learning. I demonstrate that teachers' decisions about course content and objectives are not entirely idiosyncratic, as is often implicitly assumed in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I show instead that decisions about the content and objectives of the high school course are the products of both individual and contextual factors, thus bringing the sociology of sociology's insights to bear on teaching. Specifically, I document how two groups have tried to shape the high school sociology course. On one hand, teachers have consistently taught social problems with an eye toward developing good citizens. Their formulation of content and objectives has been shaped by the historical and social context, curriculum pressures, the textbook market, students' needs and desires, and the limits of their own backgrounds and educations. Sociologists, on the other hand, have pushed for scientific sociology in the high school classroom, especially since 1960. They have been influenced by the persistent tension within sociology between science and reform, by the New Social Studies movement of the 1960s, and by the activities and position of the American Sociological Association. I conclude with practical recommendations for bridging the historical gap between teachers and sociologists. I also recommend paying more empirical and theoretical attention to the study of teaching sociology generally.

Subject Area

Sociology|Secondary education|Educational sociology

Recommended Citation

DeCesare, Michael A, "Preaching science or promoting citizenship? Teaching sociology in high school" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136719.