Social Studies is one of the big four in the school curriculum along with English, Science, Mathematics. Much of the Social Studies content is history, world history, American and state history (South Carolina in SC, and so on through the rest of the states).
The rationale for the study of history is that it provides a record of the human story so we can fully understand our own past.
However, this ambitious goal is frustratingly difficult to achieve.
Early in his career, history professor Alfred W. Cosby, wondered whether history "as it was commonly conceived was broad enough in its vision to enable historians to comprehend the essentials of even the Anglo-American, much less the fully American story..." Further, he continued, "mainstream historiography, with its emphasis on politics, produced in the end not much more than an ever-lengthening list of random events. Teaching and writing that kind of history seemed to me rather like spending three score years and ten studying roulette." (Crosby, 1994)
Crosby's life-long fascination with Columbus and the Spanish voyages to the New World saved him from a career of "watching a roulette wheel" when he chanced to read Bernal Diaz del Castillo's eyewitness account of Cortez's march in 1519-20 to Tenochitilan, the Aztec capital, an account that includes a vivid description of the small pox epidemic that decimated the Aztec empire.
Cortez, in the traditional history, is the charismatic leader of a small band of heroes who took down a vast and militaristic empire by dint of an overpowering will to win. That story underplays the role of the diseases that accompanied the Spaniards from Europe in the conquest.
Since Crosby's ambition was to comprehend the "essentials" of the human story, reading Bernal Diaz created his "aha!" moment that helped him see "history as not only politics or religion or economics, but also as biology" because obviously, "we humans are, above all else organisms." (Crosby, 1994)
To more fully understand what happened on Cortez's march to Tenochitilan, the story must include the immune systems of the Mesoamericans that were completely innocent of any contact with smallpox or other diseases common in Europe. While the Europeans had evolved protections against those diseases (measles, mumps, plague), the indigenous peoples of the New World had none.
Modern scholarship suggests that the indigenous population of North and South America may have been reduced by half or more in the century after first contact with Europeans. Cosby found that epidemiological history raised new kinds of questions about the past.
Political history asked the question: "What was there in Aztec attitudes that rendered them so vulnerable to the invaders?" Epidemiological history instead asked, "was the Aztec's chief disadvantage their remoteness from the Old World, that is, their lack of experience, immunologically and socially, with most of the Eastern Hemisphere's diseases?" While the political question is impossible to investigate or answer, the epidemiological question can be investigated by looking at the histories of other isolated peoples. "If remoteness was the crucial factor in the Aztec's fate, then Polynesian and Siberian tribes should also have suffered dreadful epidemics after contact with mainstream peoples. They did. " (Crosby, 1994)
Crosby's subsequent research on the impact of Columbus' voyages on the Americas incorporated biology, ecology, geography, and other sciences and showed how the global ecology was changed: "the transoceanic movement of plants and animals, in which Europeans shipped staple crops like wheat, oats and fruit stock along with horses, goats and pigs to the Americas, where they were not known, and transported back to Europe New World cultivars like maize, potatoes, and beans." The net result was a reduction in biodiversity and a quickening trend towards biological homogeneity that is "one of the most important aspects of the history of life on this planet since the retreat of the glaciers." (Crosby, 1994)
Since the 1970s and 1980s when Crosby was writing about the epidemiological and ecological consequences of the Columbia voyages, the completion of the human genome project has provided new data that tells the human story: the data stored in our genome. As Adam Rutherford puts it in his book A Brief History of Everyone Who Has Ever Lived: "Our genomes, genes, and DNA house a record of the journey that life has taken--4 billion years of error and trial that resulted in" us. (Rutherford, 2017)
Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared some 300,000 years ago but our written history covers only about 5,000 years. Our ability to read and explore our genome means that more of the human story can be told based on biology and environment that shaped us.
Our ability to read our genome is like having a kind of complete family tree--no names of course. Now we know where those red heads in the family came from or when we began to domesticate cattle. (Rutherford, 2017, pages 87 and following for red hair and 61 and following for the domestication of cattle).
The idea that human history lives inside of natural history suggests the need to revise the Social Studies and Science standards to include the aspects of the human story revealed by biology and ecology.
Crosby, Walter W. (1994) Germs, Seeds & Animals: Studies in Ecological History. New York.
Motyka, John (2018). Alfred Crosby, 'Father of Environmental History,' Is Dead at 87. New York Times, April 4, 2018.
Rutherford, Adam (2017) A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes. New York.
Image: Map of Cortez's Route to the Aztec Capital from "On the Trail of Hernan Cortez," The Economist, December 14, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636686-journey-past-most-mexicans-would-rather-forget-trail-hern-n
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.