A social studies curriculum is an educational program about how people live together. Its aims are to prepare students for a democratic way of life which suggests learning to live with other people as well as critical thinking about controversial issues. The curriculum draws on a range of subjects that touch on social life, especially history, geography, and civics but also the social sciences: anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology.

There is no one way to organize a social studies curriculum. In practice, however, certain approaches dominate although the history of the field features a number of major reform efforts to reconfigure it such as the new social studies projects of the 1960s and 1970s. A commitment to social studies aims rather than whether a program integrates different academic subjects or treats them separately distinguishes it from other approaches to social education (Thornton, 2005). The first social studies curricula appeared in the United States in the early twentieth century, however, in time comparable programs developed in other countries. Those programs in other countries may not necessarily be organized as they are in the United States nor always called “social studies” (Mehlinger & Tucker, 1979).

Given its aims, social studies curriculum may provoke values disputes and the field has even, at times, directly embraced forms of values “clarification” (Duplass, 2018). Social studies curriculum policymakers, developers, and users cannot avoid questions of whose values are represented or endorsed or silenced. As curricular-instructional gatekeepers, classroom teachers are generally the key determinant of what values get taught (Thornton, 1991).

In recent decades, “accountability” measures in the United States effectively shifted attention to other school subjects thus undermining the curricular status of social studies. During the same period, attention to geography within social studies appears to have declined. These two changes notwithstanding, a perennial feature of social studies curriculum seems to be a gap between the aims proclaimed for it and what actually unfolds in classrooms.