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Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Needs Greater Emphasis on Teaching History in Schools

Students head to classrooms this week in the annual back-to-school ritual. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this should be the year our public...

Students head to classrooms this week in the annual back-to-school ritual. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this should be the year our public schools embrace teaching history and civics.

From Providence to Pasadena, history teaching in our public schools is in a sorry state. A study  by the Rhode Island Historical Society shows that despite the need for for students to know more about the past, history education is getting short shrift in the classrooms.

There are many reasons for this, says Luther Spoehr, who teaches the history of American education at Brown University and serves as a consultant on history teaching across the country . Spoehr says history and civics have taken a back seat in recent years to the relentless push for more science and math..

It’s hard to blame teachers for this. History and civics must be secondary  to subjects like math and English that are tested ad nauseam. Our state education department expects students to study American history but doesn’t check their knowledge on standardized tests.

This has led to an attitude of `what’s tested is what’s taught’ according to  Spoehr. For better and worse, this is human nature. In the classroom, and on the job, it is natural in a competitive society to master what you know will get you ahead, forsaking stuff that isn’t likely to get you promoted.

The other element that is making history teaching difficult is the nation’s wide political divisions.

The Civil War is a florid example. It’s often hard to find a consensus on great events by professional historians. But most trained in academic history agree that slavery was the major cause of the war. A majority of the public  seems to have caught on. A recent poll by the McClatchy news organization and Marist College found that 55 percent of Americans think schools should teach that slavery was the `main reason’ for this war.

Yet, in  Texas, state academic standards list slavery third among the causes of the war, after states’ rights and sectionalism. Slavery, says a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education, was merely a side issue in  the war.

(Indeed, the Marist poll found that southerners, white people and those more than 60 years old are less supportive than others when it comes to teaching slavery as the prime cause of the war. And Democrats were more likely  than Republicans and independents to say slavery should be taught as a primary cause.)

Spoehr says that historical illiteracy is rampant even on his Ivy League campus. He says he is astounded by the number of undergraduates who don’t know what the New Deal was about or who was president during its heyday in the 1930s.

Across Providence at Rhode Island College, History professor Robert  Cvornyek has the same worries.. Today he holds his first class with students who plan to become history teachers. He says he will be working harder than ever to instill the importance of history in his charges.

There may finally be some light at the end of this tunnel. A new effort by the General Assembly and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is establishing a program to teach Rhode Island’s long African-American history.

The Common Core standards do not prescribe history teaching, but the literacy elements of the core require students to decode historical documents, says Elliot Krieger of the state education department.

History is important not as a recitation of names and dates, but as discipline that teaches critical thinking, the use of primary sources, how to marshal coherent arguments based on evidence. The past is always open to interpretation. Yet old wine can be poured into new wineskins as a new generation sees the past in novel ways.

Rhode Island should be a laboratory for teaching history. Our  state has arguably the nation’s best record of documenting  the past, especially in the preservation of historic sites. The state should make a small investment to ensure that kids get to experience  such gems as the colonial buildings on Benefit Street, the African-American cemetery in Newport  and birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution – and that’s just a small sampling.

(Rhode Island history is a mix of idealism and self-interest. Our history wasn’t always glorious; how could it be when it was forged by that imperfect species known as human beings  Our  state is both the birthplace of religious freedom and tolerance and a linchpin of the Atlantic slave trade. We were a birthplace of American democracy but we didn’t always live that ideal; poor people, immigrants and women were barred from voting for way too long.)

History gives us a deeper view of our humanity. It is way to escape from what critic Irving Howe aptly called the ``provincialism of the contemporary’’ and the shallowness of disposable media, fashions and fads.

It’s trite to cite the adage that those who don’t understand the past are condemned to repeat it. Yet it happens to be true.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at

Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Needs Greater Emphasis on Teaching History in Schools
Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Needs Greater Emphasis on Teaching History in Schools