Advocates Battle To Find Home for State History in Curriculum

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Until one of its native sons was first elected president of the United States four years ago, Arkansas suffered from a lackluster historical image as far as states go. There was no tea party, no gold rush, and no Gettysburg Address in its past.

But a coalition of historians and educators says that Arkansas has been unfairly labeled, even by its own residents, as a backward Southern state where little has happened during its 160 years. They hope to change all that if they win their decade-long fight to require students there to learn about the state's history.

"If we ourselves don't know our history, it's hard to find our pride," said state Rep. Sue Wood Madison, one of 21 legislators sponsoring a bill that would require state-history instruction in Arkansas' 1,072 public schools.

The struggle in Arkansas to find a place in the curriculum for state history has also been played out around the country. While most states require, or at least encourage, students to learn about the events that helped shape their states, schools are often pressed to find the time to do so, especially as other demands on the curriculum mount.

But it's not just a matter of finding the time. Educators and policymakers also must strike an appropriate balance among state, American, and world history and wrestle with how much of a state's possibly shameful past should be imparted to its youths.

Schools typically teach state history in the 4th grade to start students off with subject matter that may be most familiar--and relevant--to them. Such an introduction explains students' relationships to the rest of the country and the world, said Robert J. Norrell, a professor of history at the University of Alabama who has worked with several states to improve the teaching of history.

Students' lack of knowledge of American and world history, however, suggests that more time should be spent on those areas, he said. "If you ask the community of professional historians in this country of the relative merits of teaching a lot of state history, the consensus would be that there is more state history than we need," Mr. Norrell said.

Seeking Relevance

Relevance, though, remains an important factor to policymakers, so much so that some states have taken steps to de-emphasize their early histories in favor of the more recent past.

Alabama is considering changing its current state-history requirement to cover only the 20th century.

California has also put a stronger focus on the state's history in this century and its influence on the nation's social, economic, and political landscape. "There was a tendency to leave off around 1900, and it was rare to learn what California was like during the Great Depression or World War II," said Rodney Atkinson, a consultant with the California education department.

Sometimes districts ignore or are unaware of state regulations when it comes to state history.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, state officials had to remind districts of the state-history requirement after they discovered that many districts were not teaching enough of it.

The state recently revised and clarified its curriculum, requiring Pennsylvania history to be incorporated at the elementary, middle, and junior and senior high school levels.

"We found that a number of districts wanted to spend additional time on more international, world, and U.S. history," said Jim Wetzler, the state's director of social studies education. "About five years ago, you would have seen a majority of districts spending a full year on Pennsylvania history. That's not the case today," he said. "There is so much to address at all levels within social studies; I think it is very difficult to find room."

The rule does not specify how much time schools must spend on state history or at what depth. But Mr. Wetzler said that most of the state's 500 districts give the subject significant play by integrating it into American history, which states such as Pennsylvania--one of the original colonies and the site of Independence Hall and Valley Forge--can do more readily than some newer states can.

A Favored Topic

State-history advocates are likely to find allies among lawmakers, particularly in the South, where it is a favored subject for the public and legislators, Mr. Norrell of the University of Alabama said.

Pushing for more American and world history at the expense of the state and local experience may not be "worth it to incur the wrath of the state nationalist," he said. "In much of rural, provincial America, that would be a very strong lobby."

In Arkansas, that lobby may finally have a strong foothold. The bill that Ms. Madison, a Democrat, and her colleagues have introduced would require state history to be taught in each grade in every elementary school--with an additional semester devoted to the subject in high school. Ms. Madison said she has not yet heard any opposition from lawmakers.

But there are others who challenge the bill, and chief among them are state school board members who say they are trying to reduce top-down management and give districts freedom in setting curricula.

"I think the board fully supports the adequate presentation of Arkansas history and history in general," Chairman James A. McLarty III said. "But we're opposed to the idea of the General Assembly getting into areas I don't think they have any business getting into."

A decade ago, as the state celebrated its sesquicentennial, the coalition of history and education organizations came close to getting the legislature to adopt a bill requiring a state-history course in high school. But state education officials convinced lawmakers that they would make it a regulation.

After years of negotiations between the board and state-history champions, the board adopted the regulation in 1993 and incorporated it into its state standards that, beginning last fall, schools must meet to remain accredited.

The standards call for a separate course on Arkansas history to be taught in 7th or 8th grade and for the topic to be interwoven in other history lessons in grades K-8.

But the regulations have caused confusion among educators and legislators. The bill states that Arkansas history instruction is not a requisite and that it is routinely overlooked.

State board members, however, maintain that the current standards provide ample opportunities for instruction in Arkansas history.

But the confusion about the requirements has allowed many districts to give the subject short shrift, said Thomas W. Dillard, the president of the Arkansas History Education Coalition, which first spearheaded the effort a decade ago.

State history "has been relegated to a very brief component in the elementary school curriculum, and in many districts it has pretty much been eliminated altogether," Mr. Dillard said.

He dismisses opponents who say that state history is too parochial and takes away from other history courses.

The state's rich history--from the bluff-dwelling Indians who inhabited the land in 500 A.D. to the French and Spanish explorers who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries and to its recent history--should be known by all residents, he said.

Unlike some of his colleagues, however, Mr. Dillard believes that simply integrating state elements into American and world history dilutes the effectiveness of the message.

"Some argue that the only way to teach [state history] is to set it into its American context," Mr. Dillard said. "That's a very sad example of the homogenization of America and the loss of our regional and state distinctiveness. We need to fight that trend."

Warts and All

In line with the national debate over how much of the United States' blemished history should be taught to schoolchildren, the issue also arises at the state level.

In Arkansas, Ms. Madison believes that some of the reluctance to mandate history courses may emanate from an unwillingness to dredge up the saddest events in the state's history, including the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High School in Little Rock, when President Eisenhower had to call out federal troops to escort black students.

Mr. Dillard believes that state-history courses should not duck the dishonorable events of a state's past.

"I don't think we ought to be teaching any sort of state cheerleading," Mr. Dillard said. "When people are armed with knowledge of the past, warts and all, they are better able to put that past into state, regional, and national perspective."

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