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Thursday, July 05, 2007

North Carolina schools are starving students of basic American history

There's a very disturbing piece in the News & Observer by Holly Brewer, associate professor of early American history at North Carolina State University. I had no idea this was happening in North Carolina schools, until I read her article. According to Dr. Brewer, North Carolina public schools are no longer giving high school students even a basic education in American history prior to the Revolution...
RALEIGH - While few of us have noticed, the state Department of Public Instruction has gutted history education in North Carolina. As a result of a decision taken largely without public input or comment, high school students no longer learn about Colonial and Revolutionary American history unless they take Advanced Placement classes. Required U.S. history in high school now begins with George Washington's presidency and ends with that of George W. Bush. It is crammed into one semester (on block scheduling) instead of two.

At a moment when the nature of basic American rights has once again become a crucial issue in politics, our students -- our citizens and future voters -- now learn nearly nothing about the principles over which the Revolution was fought, except during one day in their 10th grade civics and economics class. The Constitution, inasmuch as students consult it in that class, becomes an empty document, a list to be memorized without context or meaning. It, too, is hurried over, in a course that focuses on other material.

Four years ago, I taught a refresher course for history teachers, who warned me that these curricular changes were about to happen. But I didn't believe them. In this state that was an original colony, I couldn't believe that our schools would virtually cease to teach the first half of American history.

I now learn from those teachers that these changes have in fact reduced instruction in early American history -- including the Revolution -- to virtually nothing.

LEAVING OUT NEARLY TWO CENTURIES OF AMERICAN HISTORY, and especially the Revolution and Constitution, is simply unconscionable. History provides a grounding in the basics of citizenship through the tangible experiences and decisions of historical actors, whether John Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, Phyllis Wheatley or the ladies who participated in the Edenton tea party. Only by understanding that Jefferson was raised in a Church of England that put the king at its head, for example, can we understand why he so vigorously advocated the separation of church and state.

Our students need to learn where the principles of democracy come from and why they matter. They need to learn about the struggles of early settlement, about cultural conflict on the frontier, about the religious intolerance and conflicts over basic rights that motivated people to support the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

America's colonial and revolutionary past explains why we have developed rules against torture and arbitrary imprisonment. That history explains how slavery was allowed to develop in the first place and why people began to believe that slavery was wrong. It explains how we came up with principles of religious toleration. It explains how to avoid unnecessary wars, and how difficult it is for empires to win military conflicts against anti-colonial insurgencies. It shows how we have changed as a people and a nation.

As the 1988 report of the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools stated: History "provides the only avenue we have to reach an understanding of ourselves and of our society."

The problem with history instruction, moreover, goes deeper than the recent change in high school standards. The focus on basic reading, writing and math skills in elementary school -- partly a product of No Child Left Behind -- has minimized history instruction in earlier grades as well. Yet history is at the core of what students should be learning because it provides them with so much useful advice and perspective on their own lives. ...

Hit the link for more from this extensive essay.

Color me paranoid, but for a very long time now - since even before I studied for awhile at Elon to be a teacher, even - I haven't been able to escape the sense that there's been a deliberate "dumbing-down" of the American people, beginning with their time in school. This essay by Dr. Brewer doesn't just reinforce that belief, it downright confirms it.

How can we be a free people if we have no understanding about the process that gave us that freedom... or if we have no concept of what constitutes actual freedom, at all?

Click on the links above for a sobering must-read for anyone interested in public education in North Carolina.