Exploration Into Social Sciences: Today’s History

The sun rises in 1824 Ireland, and families begin their day as normal. Irish politician William Thompson sits at his desk, drafting his paper titled, “An inquiry into the principles of the distribution of wealth most conducive to human happiness; applied to the newly proposed system of voluntary equality of wealth.” He is the first human to utter the phrase “social science.” Frankly, Thompson thought working together would help poor people. In the second half of the 19th century, Britain’s John Dewy repurposed the term “social science” as an approach to education.

Social sciences define branches of academic study dealing with human behavior. Dewy saw these ideals as better suited for education, setting the stage for an exploration into the humanities without limits. Today, schools worldwide have begun adopting social sciences to re-classify history departments, effectively beginning such exploration. Western Reserve Academy strives to push the boundaries of the phrase.

This year, students and faculty alike returned to WRA with a noticeable modification to the academic catalog. The previously known Department of History now reads Department of Social Sciences. Dr. Lisabeth Robinson, Chair of the Department of Social Sciences, avidly defends and justifies the revision.

Dr. Robinson recalls a time when her department felt constricted to adding courses strictly falling under a “history umbrella.” She knew this umbrella’s canopy was not wide enough for her ambition. Since beginning as Social Sciences Department Chair, Robinson felt the change was almost inevitable.

In reality, Dr. Robinson believes WRA began its exploration into fields beyond history several years prior, citing the anthropological influence in the freshman Exploring Global Foundations class. Additionally, WRA has long-standing offerings in philosophy and economics—both typically known as social sciences courses—which she believes made the change all the more vital. Dr. Robinson emphasized a more significant purpose behind the title: “It’s more about the approach, less about subdisciplines.”

In early 2019, WRA announced that Christopher Burner would no longer hold the Head of School title. That honor now rests with Suzanne Walker Buck. With Mrs. Buck’s induction came an administrative transition period. A new age dawned at WRA, a school rooted in tradition and ritual shifted focus towards a modernized approach to learning. Within a year of Buck’s administration, WRA had implemented several new departments, including Integrated Studies and Design (ISD) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

Dr. Robinson sees this transition as an outlet for her own department’s expansion into humanities. “We’re branching into different areas and want to continue to do so,” Dr. Robinson noted as supplementary motivation in adopting Social Sciences. ISD’s introduction laid a canvas to be painted by innovative, contemporary courses ranging from E-Textiles and Design to The Evolution and Impact of Advertising; Dr. Robinson wants to ensure future courses grounded in history have a home outside the ISD department. While anticipating future Social Sciences courses like political science, urban studies, maybe even gender and ethnic studies, Dr. Robinson feels Social Sciences “opens the door” for similarly innovative courses without them simply being assigned to the ISD department. Today, the Social Sciences department can attract students not typically drawn to humanities-based classes.

Take Ellie McGregor ’22 for example. Entering the 2021-2022 school year, Ellie “never thought [she] would take another history class after fulfilling [her] junior year requirement.” As Ellie entered Seymour Hall ready to finalize her heavily STEM-oriented schedule, one particular class caught her attention. Global Health—a new elective taught by Dr. Robinson—intrigued Ellie: “I’m really not a huge fan of history, but I love science, so taking Global Health was super appealing!” The elective complements her schedule and allows Ellie to study history through a more familiar lens.

Dr. Robinson sees an education rooted in Social Sciences as the first step in “building student’s profiles as global citizens.” Through offerings that complement disciplines outside of a traditional history department, WRA stays true to its mission—trailblazing an education fit to serve today’s youth.

David King ’22

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