I've been amusing myself this week by looking at results of a new study by the Thomas Fordham Institute entitled "The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011." Like any good schoolmarm, the Institute assigned grades to all 50 states. A majority received "D" or "F." Both Iowa and Texas failed --- miserably.
In the interests of fair disclosure, I just picked Texas out of a hat in order to have another state to compare Iowa to --- and picked another loser. But the field of winners is narrow. Only one state, South Carolina, received a straight A; six other jurisdictions, Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia, received A-minuses. Twenty-eight states were awarded "D" or "F" grades.
I'm interested in this for various reasons --- the predominant nature of this blog the most obvious. But here's the deal: History is the foundation of everything, literally, and nothing occurring today is without historic parallels that offer useful lessons. George Santayana stated it most succinctly: "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.... Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
In a time of intense polarization, it seems, the regressive right wing is busy rewriting history in its own image while the progressive left wing is busy marginalizing history --- behaving too often as if it isn't important, that only the future counts. It's hard to say which approach carries the most hazards --- perhaps the latter.
The Thomas Fordham Institute, by the way, considers itself right of center in outlook although it draws big bucks from all directions because of its perceived integrity. Based in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, the extreme right dismisses it as left wing and elitist; the extreme left, as a crusader for evisceration of public education because of its interest in charter schools and voucher programs.
Here are a couple of things the Fordham survey report had to say about Iowa's history standards. Keep in mind that Iowans of all but the most extreme extremes like to think of this as an educationally progressive state:
“The history component of social studies,” Iowa’s core curriculum document declares, aims to “build upon a foundation of historical knowledge,” in order to “describe the relationship between historical facts, concepts, and generalizations. History draws upon cause and effect relationships within multiple social narratives to help explain complex human interactions. Understanding the past provides context for the present and implications for the future.
If, however, Diogenes searched with his lamp through the Iowa standards for an honest attempt to create this substantive "foundation" he would discover a startling fact: There is no history whatsoever in the Iowa “core curriculum.
Instead, the state offers little more than a series of vapid social studies concepts and skills. Students are expected to understand these concepts without having to bother with historical information.
And finally, this:
The so-called “core curriculum” contains neither core nor curriculum. No subject matter is clearly assigned to any grade, resulting in no measurable grade-specific levels of substance and/or rigor. The standards do not even make a meaningful distinction among American, world, and other histories. As a result, there is no Iowa U.S. history curriculum to assess — or indeed any historical curriculum at all ...."
If apparent indifference to history is the problem in Iowa, too much interest in manipulating history to further an agenda seems to be the problem in Texas. Here are a couple of things the Fordham report had to say about conditions in that state, where the curriculum has been rewritten recently by a State Board of Education dominated by the Christian right:
"Complex historical issues are obscured with blatant politicizing throughout the document. Biblical influences on America’s founding are exaggerated, if not invented. The complicated but undeniable history of separation between church and state is flatly dismissed. From the earliest grades, students are pressed to uncritically celebrate the “free enterprise system and its benefits.” “Minimal government intrusion” is hailed as key to the early nineteenth-century commercial boom—ignoring the critical role of the state and federal governments in internal improvements and economic expansion. Native peoples are missing until brief references to nineteenth-century events. Slavery, too, is largely missing. Sectionalism and states’ rights are listed before slavery as causes of the Civil War, while the issue of slavery in the territories—the actual trigger for the sectional crisis—is never mentioned at all. During and after Reconstruction, there is no mention of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, or sharecropping; the term “Jim Crow” never appears. Incredibly, racial segregation is only mentioned in a passing reference to the 1948 integration of the armed forces."
The conservative majority on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has openly sought to use the state curriculum to promote its political priorities, molding the telling of the past to justify its current views and aims. Indeed, the SBOE majority displayed overt hostility and contempt for historians and scholars, whom they derided as insidious activists for a liberal academic establishment.
If you want to read the reports in full or see how your state fared, go to the Thomas Fordham Institute Web site by clicking here.