Looking back: TC alum Ben Jacobs examines the history of Social Studies education

Social Studies program alum Ben Jacobs is still cultivating a passion for research that was born and bred at TC. “I think that, by studying the history of the Social Studies field, we gain the best and broadest sense of how some of the enduring ideas, research interests, and controversies that we cope with to this day developed. Any study of the history of a field will enrich its contemporary study, because everything has a history and nothing exists in a vacuum.”

Jacobs cites as an example various historical cycles in the 100-year history of the field, such as the recurrent interest in teaching with primary sources, from the source method in the 1890s, to the lab method in the 1920s, the “New Social Studies” projects in the 1960s, and the resurgence of training students as historians in the 1990s. An examination of these trends lends itself to asking the questions, “What are the historical parallels? How much has changed? Are they saying the same things? How much did these people look to their predecessors and how much did they think they were inventing something new?”

Jacobs came to TC in 1998 after five years of teaching Social Studies at a Jewish secondary school. After starting in the Ed.M. program, his love for research called him to join the doctoral program. Under the guidance of Professor Stephen Thornton, Jacobs pursued his interest in the history of social education in the early 20th century, exploring the ways in which students at TC in the 1910s-1930s, who were preparing for careers in Jewish schools, adapted Social Studies for Jewish education purposes. During his time as a doctoral student, Jacobs also contributed to the program by teaching a number of courses, including Methods and History of Social Studies, as well as supervising student teachers.

Now an assistant professor of Social Studies Education and Jewish Education at NYU, Jacobs is taking his study of the history of the field deeper. In answer to a lack of literature around the history of teacher education, Jacobs is writing about the historical trends in the methodologies of teaching Social Studies teachers. He is also researching the idea of a cosmopolitan Jewish education, investigating how citizenship education at Jewish schools, that is, preparing kids to be good, active members of the American Jewish community, can be more globalized and contemporary, with an emphasis on social justice.

So why does Jacobs feel studying the history of the field is so important? “I think it’s enriching to know what’s happened before and I think it gives us a little more purpose. If you see yourself in a historical continuum, then it kind of charges up the actual work you’re doing. It helps you look at it in a broader scheme and ask, ‘What is the legacy that you’re leaving to your students in the work that you’re doing? What is the legacy that you inherited from your predecessors and they from theirs?’ I think there’s a lot to be gained from learning the history of the field.”

For more on NCSS presenters from TC, click here.