Dr. Robert A. Waterson

Associate Professor
Department of Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies

“When President Barack Obama took the oath of office on January 20, 2009, he gave the nation a challenge: ‘What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.’ One of the nation’s greatest responsibilities is to prepare students for their most important position they will hold in life, that as CITIZEN.”
-Robert A. Waterson, Ph.D., 2013 CEHS Magazine

On Sunday, August 24 the Center for Democracy and Citizenship Education’s (CDCE) Touching History program will open to the public, hosted in the WVU Erickson Alumni Center’s Nutting Gallery Room. The program is a rare book exhibit from The Remnant Trust, a public foundation that shares some of history’s most important works on the topics of liberty, human rights, democracy, and other of humanity’s greatest ideals.

The exhibit at WVU is a direct result of the efforts of Dr. Robert A. Waterson, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literacy Studies (CILS) and Director of the CDCE, in collaboration with several CEHS faculty. The collection will consist of such documents as the Emancipation Proclamation, Essay on Human Understanding, The Federalist, Common Sense, and the Magna Carta.

For Waterson, who has dedicated his life to social studies, bringing the collection to WVU just makes sense. His research, as well as his experiences, has led him to the conclusion that in-depth civics education in schools is one of the ways students become good citizens. The documents on display in the Touching History exhibit are the foundations for what students are taught today.

Waterson’s passion for the social studies, particularly civics educations, stems from a childhood spent as a transient student bouncing from school to school as his father took on different jobs.

“I was in twelve different schools between first and eighth grade. My last name starts with W, so I always sat in the back of the class anyway. In the process of moving all the time, I became an anonymous student.”

Accompanying him in the back of the class were various classroom materials – Weekly Readers, class texts on history and world culture, and other literature that Waterson devoured.
“I immersed myself in reading. When it came to other subject areas, I had no clue, but reading gave me an early perspective on the world. I started reading about countries and finding out where these places were, biographies on the founding brothers of our country. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison all became my best friends.”

As Waterson continued through school, he became enamored with the history of the United States and the ideals that formed it. He wanted to know where those ideals stemmed from and set out to study them.

“It wasn’t until I was taking undergraduate courses that I realized many of [Thomas] Jefferson’s ideals were coined from Montesquieu, Locke, and documents like the Magna Carta.”

In a school system where social studies students were merely being asked to memorize the presidents of the United States for tests, Waterson realized that the American ideals being taught to students- liberty, equality, and democracy, to name a few- were essentially hollow without their origins being taught alongside them. That realization was a catalyst for bringing the Touching History exhibit to WVU, according to Waterson.

“I realized that there was very little knowledge of American ideals being passed on, and what was being passed on lacked depth and ownership. The truth of it is, these great works are there to remind us where these ideals that our country was established on came from.”

After working as a social studies teacher in the public school system for many years, Waterson went on to earn his Ph.D. and begin to affect the change he wanted to see in social studies education. In becoming a teacher of curriculum, he witnessed the reserve side social studies, finding that many pre-service teachers often viewed their social studies assignments as just something to get through. He concluded that the ideals espoused by Americans started with civics educations, and that pre-service teachers must first be empowered before they can, in turn, empower their students to be active citizens.

Waterson’s work on social studies and how it relates to democratic values was recently published in The Status of Social Studies, 2013, a text that combines data from 35 states in order to gain an accurate picture of the current state of social studies education in the United States. He co-authored the chapter, Social Studies and Democratic Values, with University of North Dakota professor Donna K. Pearson.

He saw the national study as a way to enter West Virginia – one of the states that participated – data into the system. Together, he and Pearson reviewed data to understand what kind of emphasis teachers place on democratic values in their curricula. In addition to finding that democratic values are at the core of what students are being taught, their findings showed that social history is being emphasized in the classroom and that children generally begin learning about democratic values in elementary school.

“The study provides the opportunity to better understand the importance of what is taught in social studies classrooms across the nation,” said Pearson. “It cannot be overstated how significant it is to connect student interest to relevant social studies themes.

“Of greater note, the teaching of social studies must remain a cornerstone of our educational efforts if we are to provide the next generation with the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions required to sustain our democratic values.”

The study took two years to complete and was subject to intensive peer review from an internal review board. It is the largest study of social studies teachers in more than three decades.
In a proposal he has submitted to present to the 2014 College & University Faculty Assembly (CUFA), he details a case study in which a pre-service social studies teacher was required to reach out to the community to gain useful information to use in a lesson plan. The participant was required to participate in an oral history of WWII Veterans in West Virginia, during which he had to establish connections within the surrounding community that stretched back three generations. Waterson found that the pre-service teacher had never before been asked to reach out to the community and, once he did, his teaching pedagogy had shifted towards using community resources such as veterans.

“The goal in creating this lesson plan is for students to internalize the importance of the role of active learning experiences as an instructional strategy and understand how pre-service teachers value the place of oral histories and their perception of the value of this experiential assignment.”

“We, as social studies teachers, are exposing our students to something very important. As our social and family structures have begun to change, people have less time to teach their children, and if we don’t pass these ideals along to the younger generations, no one will.”

Despite the apparent importance of the role of social studies education in public schools, many school districts are cutting back on funding, even more so in rural schools, which Waterson notes make up nearly 30% of United States Public Schools.

“There is virtually no money now for civics education now, which is sad because not only does it benefit people, it benefits our country.”

Waterson and doctoral student Eric Moffa, also a volunteer with the CDCE, have recently submitted a paper for the 2015 Association of Teacher Educators conference titled “The Challenges of Teaching Citizenship in a Rural Community”. In it, they address the obstacles social studies teachers meet in rural schools and how teacher educators may prepare them for a career in a rural community. Further research done by Waterson shows how, even though rural communities make up a significant portion of the U.S. population, their voices in politics have been marginalized due to lack of adequate citizenship education. It is the job of civics teachers, Waterson says, to empower rural students to get involved in politics and become active citizens.

And where the social studies are being taught, are they being taught in a meaningful way that gives students perspective? “Dare We Not Teach 9/11 Yet Advocate Citizenship Education?”, authored by Waterson and Mary E. Haas, C&I/LS, was published in The Social Studies, 2011. In the article Waterson and Haas explore how 9/11, often referred to as the defining event of younger generations, is being taught in classrooms.

They note, “It is doubtful that brief media clips allow for learning the meaning and significance of such an event as 9/11.” What they found, however, is that many social studies teachers were not teaching about 9/11, listing a variety of reasons- that they believed the material was too complex for students, or that they feared the reaction associated with teaching a subject like 9/11.

For Waterson, who had conducted his doctoral research on the Holocaust and discovered it had become a mere talking point in classrooms when teaching about WWII, this sounded familiar. He and Hass discuss how events such as 9/11 have a broad social impact and how imperative it is to educate children on the issues surrounding 9/11 such as culture, institutions, authority, governance, international laws and relations, and, of course, civic ideals.

“It’s critical that we do appreciate what we know and how it happened, and to look to our heritage, these ideals that we’ve been taught, when we act. That’s where the gap in education is… who came up with these ideals?”

That is what Waterson has dedicated his career changing.

While many of history’s most valued documents are closed in vaults, held behind bullet-proof glass, or held in private collections only available to the few and not to the masses, those who attend the Touching History exhibit will be able to see and touch the documents on display. They will hear presentations on why and how these documents came to be, and the changes they created.

Touching History is just one of the many projects the CDCE has taken on to actively engage students and teachers alike in civics education, hoping to fuel the desire to teach and learn about the heritage behind the ideals people identify with today.

Faculty Focus Archive