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Daniel Tröhler

“Progressivism” is a collective term used in historiography to characterize historical phases in which particular ways to think about progress are detectable. Hence, “progressivism” is more a historiographical label used by historians than a term used by those thinkers identified as being part of a progressive phase in history. Even though important scholars have argued that the idea of progress can be traced back to antiquity, others have argued that ideas of progress—as a more or less linear alternative to a cyclical way of thinking—are found for the first time in the transition from the early modern period to modernity (ca. 1700). These ideas of progress can be linked to the advancement of knowledge, to the perfecting of the soul or then of the social order, and they link the notion of “progress” with notions like “perfection” and “development.” As a rule, “progress” did not include notions of future chaos or imponderability but rather was understood as an ordered proceeding to the future that was interpreted either as the redemption or materializing of a more or less predetermined road (individually and/or socially), as a contribution to adjustment of social development understood as dangerous or wrong, or as resulting from a forecast and planned future. All of these attempts over the last three and a half centuries to conceptualize progress in one way or another were connected to research, and they affected ideas on education; most of them were even closely related to educational aspirations, methods, programs, and/or policy. The two great and independent motives of “progress” can be identified first around 1700 in France and England with regard to advancement in knowledge and the sciences (1), and in Germany with regard to the perfection of the soul. The idea of human perfection and the advancement of the knowledge based on modern sciences were merged in the Enlightenment prior to the French Revolution and its philosophical legitimation (2), leading in the German realm to a philosophy of history that subordinated all of human and natural history to a great narrative from the past to the future (3). The emergence of sociology gave the narrative a national frame that was supported by the erection of modern schooling, but by the end of the 19th century, the modern conditions of social and political life as actual expressions of progress were perceived as not redeeming the promises of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of history, which led to a schism in the interpretation of “true” progress. These critical perceptions triggered a reaction labeled the Progressive Era, which aimed to readjust the modern conditions of life to particular, often religious ideals of social order in which progress was more tightly connected to (idealized) visions of the past (4). The educational ideas and ideals of this Progressive Era proved to be sustainable, but they were attacked during the Cold War period, which saw an emphasis on technocratic aspects of governance and specific ideas of economic and social development. The ramifications of this focus, which called for planning the future and adjusting education to these plans, can be seen in the case of the OECD (5).


Social studies education has had a turbulent history as one of the core subjects in the school curriculum. The fundamental content of the social studies curriculum – the study of human enterprise across space and time –however, has always been at the core of educational endeavors. It is generally accepted that the formal introduction of social studies to the school curriculum was instigated by the 1916 report of the National Education Association’s Committee on Social Studies, which emphasized development of citizenship values as a core aim of history and social science education. Earlier commissions of the N.E.A. and American Historical Association heavily influenced the Committee on Social Studies recommendations. The roots of the contemporary social studies curriculum, therefore, can be traced to two distinct curriculum reform efforts: the introduction of academic history into the curriculum and citizenship education. There is widespread agreement that the aim of social studies is citizenship education, that is the preparation of young people so that they possess the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for active participation in society. This apparent consensus, however, has been described as almost meaningless because social studies educators continue to be at odds over curricular content as well as the conception of what it means to be a good citizen. Since its formal introduction into the school, social studies curriculum been the subject of numerous commission and blue-ribbon panel studies, ranging from the sixteen-volume report of the American Historical Association’s Commission on Social Studies in the 1930s to the more recent movement for national curriculum standards. Separate and competing curriculum standards have been published for no less than seven areas of that are part of the social studies curriculum: United States and global history, economics, geography, civics, psychology, and social studies. Social studies curriculum is defined a lack of consensus and has been an ideological battleground with ongoing debates over its nature, purpose, and content. Historically there have been a diverse range of curricular programs that have been a prominent within social studies education at various times, including the life adjustment movement, progressive education, social reconstructionism, and nationalistic history. The debate over the nature, purpose, and content of the social studies curriculum continues today, with competing groups variously arguing for a social issues approach, the disciplinary study of history and geography, or action for social justice as the most appropriate framework for the social studies curriculum.