Scott MacKay Commentary: Time To Focus On R.I. History In Our Public Schools

Nov 26, 2014

It sometimes seems as if all of our contemporary debates over education revolve around high-stakes testing. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says our schools are neglecting an important topic that isn’t tested.

In this age of STEM and standardized tests, are we teaching enough Rhode Island history in our public schools?
Credit First Student Company

Trying to figure out what’s happening in education nowadays is an exercise in futility. You have to learn a new language suffused with psycho babble and techno-speak:  educators use terms  like rubrics, social-emotional learning and  site-based management..

Add to this soup of Orwellian news speak the desultory acronyms of the testing and curriculum regimes – MCAS, NECAP and the Common Core. All these tests are supposed to be impactful so that kids can be college and career ready.

As if the education bureaucrats and the teacher’s colleges mission is to produce educators who think using impact as a verb is proper English. Of course, in a society fixated on STEM studies, why  worry  about English?

Whatever happened to schools helping students become good citizens? One of the best ways to accomplish this is to teach a subject that isn’t covered in the endless parade of tests:  history.

History and its twin, old-fashioned civics, don’t show up on the standardized  tests. Yet who can argue that there isn’t a crying need to instill in youngsters an appreciation for the language, literature and critical thinking embodied in the study of our past?

This should be especially true in Rhode Island, a small slice of southeastern New England with a big influence on our region’s  and nation’s economic, political and cultural development. The Rhode Island Historical Society, one of the keepers of our state’s past, has long recognized this.

The historical society has long tried to teach teachers the long, florid story that is Rhode Island history.  Now, the society worries that history and social studies are getting lost in our public schools because kids aren’t tested on these topics, says Elyssa Tardif, the historical society’s education director.

The society had a three-year federal grant to support teaching local history, but this grant has run out. So the society has started a new initiative to bring the teaching of our past to schools. Tardif says this initiative seeks to link the more than 400 local history and ethnic studies groups in the state with public  schools.

Elliott Krieger, spokesman for the state Department of Education, says RIDE expects students to study American history in high school, but acknowledges the department doesn't assess how well students are taught. And who can blame schools for failing to immerse children in a subject that isn't tested, especially in this era of 24/7 testing and grading teachers on how well their students perform on such tests.

There is some good news here: Rhode Island has one of the nation’s best records of preserving the past, especially in the preservation of historic sites. We are a tiny speck of a state with museums and societies that spill over with the tale of our society.

Yet, there is a sadness in peering at the guest book at the John Brown House in Providence, one of America’s first mansions, and seeing many more names from Toronto and Washington than Tiverton and Warwick. Or in the few Rhode Islanders who have visited Woonsocket’s Museum of Work and Culture.

Indifference to the past isn’t new. It is rooted in what the critic Irving Howe once called the ``provincialism of the contemporary’’   with each new trend or fashion ``touted by the media and then quickly dismissed.’’

One way to combat the shallowness of the present and this rampant historical illiteracy is to learn about a past that always informs the future. ``The aim of education, ‘’ in the words of that great philosopher and native New Englander, John Dewey, ``is to enable individuals to continue their education.’’

Young people need to understand that the past is the foundation of the present. Rhode Island’s story harkens to colonial times and the state’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War. It continues as the birthplace of religious freedom and civil government. Our state kicked off the industrial revolution and was a World War II arsenal of democracy.

Our history, of course, wasn’t always a glorious tale; it was forged by humans. Rhode Island was a linchpin of the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of immigrant and child workers in factories.  For too many years, our industries used Narragansett Bay as a fetid sewer.

We cling to the democratic idea, but our state didn’t always live up to it; poor people, immigrants and women were excluded from voting for way too long.

We instill subjects from math to self-esteem in the young. Isn’t it about time we taught them   the critical thinking skills and respect for our heritage that we can  learn only from history. Who wants to ask a high school student what he or she knows about Roger Williams and have the answer be:

``Roger Williams, what team did he play for? Wasn’t he Ted Williams cousin?’’

Scott MacKay’s commentary airs each 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 RIPR.org