Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Teaching history

The impulse to stay out of the dogfight among educators and historians over the teaching of Arkansas history in the schools is almost irresistible. The controversy has a certain elitist patina. Who knows best just how and when to inculcate an appreciation of the state’s past into youngsters, and precisely how much time and emphasis does it deserve in an already overloaded curriculum?

The last question seems to have been settled by law. The legislature decreed some time ago that Arkansas history shall be taught in the public schools. The law has not been universally followed and when it has been followed it has often been in a desultory and careless way. So if the state is actually serious about teaching Arkansas history, it is of some consequence whether it is done effectively.

A task force of the state Education Department recommended overhauling Arkansas history instruction to spread it out as part of a general social studies curriculum in the grade schools.

A doughty bunch of historians has risen up to protest. They say that Arkansas history should be a mandatory stand-alone subject taught in the secondary schools, as the law intended. The historians have been joined by no less a figure than David Hampton Pryor, the former state lawmaker, congressman, governor and U. S. senator, who says that blending it into a social studies program is no way to treat Arkansas history.

Or Arkansas kids, we would add. The trouble with state history instruction and with most state history textbooks is that it is homogenized history, public-relations pabulum and distinctively uninteresting.

The dark corners of history are blurred or painted out altogether. They are histories of the Wonder State. There have been good histories, starting with John Gould Fletcher’s “Arkansas” (1947) and running through the series published by the University of Arkansas Press, which concluded with Ben Johnson’s brilliant segment on modern Arkansas. But they are not written for public school students. The best that are useful to high school students is Michael B. Dougan’s bulky “Arkansas Odyssey: The Saga of Arkansas from Prehistoric Times to Present” (1993), which doesn’t brush out the blemishes and captures the sturm and drang of the state’s sometimes disgraceful past. If children were exposed to Dougan’s penetrating and unexpurgated scholarship and acerbic style, they just might become better citizens.

That can’t happen, or won’t happen, in a homogenized chapter of social studies, so we come down with David Pryor on this tempest in the hope that youngsters may yet learn real history.
— Ernie Dumas