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In Defense of Teaching State and Local History

you'll be remembered, nathaniel

One of the sites I look most forward to reading is Florida School Boss – the FSB gives honest, straightforward commentary on the issues with which a school leader contends on a daily basis.

FSB’s most recent post takes issue with an article on History is Elementary – tied with KitchenTableMath as my favorite curricular blog – about the role of state and local history in our schools. While HiE sees state history as an important element of a young student’s curriculum, the Boss finds it trivial compared to more relevant and therefore important national history:

Think of a name of a Florida county. Many are named after historical figures of Florida note. Broward. Duval. Brevard.

Do you know, or really care, who these people were?

OK, so we know about Flagler… he was rich and built a neat train line between his resorts. And Osceola of course.

But do Indiana children, or Ohio children, or Montana children need to know about Flagler and Osceola?

If not, I say it’s not really that important.

I left the following comment on his site explaining my views on the subject. I decided to republish it here with embedded links for everyone’s benefit.

—————

Boss,

I have had your site in my RSS reader for some time now. I think a great deal of it and regret that the first comment I leave will be a negative one.

The premise of your argument is that history education should be based on relevance. That is partially true, but one encounters the seemingly irrelevant at every turn in one’s future – and one must be equipped to handle that.

As a preface, I was born and educated in Cooperstown, New York, an area of our country not just seminal to our nation’s history, but also a stage on which current cultural history – mainly baseball – performs year round.

I can tell you about the history of the French river trading and the towns that sprouted from the activity; I can do this because I learned about how natural waterways like the Susquehanna River played an important role in the development of the Northeast, as well as how the Erie Canal changed the Western frontier of our state in the early 19th century.

I can tell you about Anthony Wayne’s military service and his legacy – stretching from Fort Wayne to Wayne County, New York, I should add – because of the skills I learned while studying the life and career of Nicholas Herkimer, the Battle of Oriskany and the legacy of both.

I have perspective on Indiana’s automotive and manufacturing industry – including that industry relative to the rest of the automotive manufacturing belt – because I studied Remington Arms’ role in manufacturing firearms over many generations and how arms manufacturing in New York related to centres in nearby states such as Springfield, MA and Enfield, CT.

I think of Indiana High School basketball and the 1954 Milan/Muncie game that inspires every David facing every Goliath each time I wonder whether class-based athletics is a detriment to high school competition. When I attend a Cooperstown sporting event, I lament that there will never be a Bobby Plump in high school sports – let alone from Cooperstown – in my lifetime.

I understand the role of corn and soybeans in Indiana’s agricultural history because I can relate it to the farming economy in the Finger Lakes region of New York, an area whose fruits quite literally become fine world-renowned wine.

I’m familiar with “On the Banks of the Wabash,” and other songs that reference Indiana because I learned them after mastering New York canal music. “Wabash Cannonball” was one of the first songs that I learned on the banjo, but I learned it after New York State’s “Low Bridge.”

Understanding New York State history as a student in its public schools prepared me for precisely the irrelevance that you seem to deride. I’m not a young schoolboy anymore, but throughout my adult life – during college and beyond – when I encounter unfamiliar history, I have a very easy time grasping it quickly because I can perform comparative analysis. Though I have never spent any time in Indiana, I suspect that I could have profitable, enjoyable conversations with its residents – or, in your case, a former resident.

State and especially local history gives students a chance to understand the people, places and things around them with which they’re already familiar. They know the place names and relative geography when talking about small, seemingly-insignificant battles; they realize that the name of the local community college pays homage to a person whose marked impact on the region has been remembered for several generations. This everyday connection to history, something one has more trouble fostering when talking about distant places and unfamiliar names long dead, is important to the intellectual and moral development of our students.

From a curricular standpoint, the study of state and local history provides transferable skills and frames of reference that will apply to the further study and appreciation of history. One simply cannot fully appreciate the place in which one is without being able to compare it to the place in which one has been. That appreciation is history in action.

Put bluntly – and I do apologize for this frankness – your decision to take local/state education out of your school’s curriculum was misguided, ill-considered and harmful to your students. The majority of your students will grow up and take root in Florida and know less about what’s around them than previous generations. And that pattern will continue; like making a photocopy of a photocopy several times over, quality is lost in each generation. Unfortunately, history isn’t something that you can re-introduce easily once it is lost [and we can see in the Middle East the terrible distortions that synthetic reintroduction of cultural history create].

But most importantly, you have deprived those who will take flight and land elsewhere of a significant part of their identity and you have impacted for the worse the intellectual diversity of the communities of which they’ll be a part. Consider their freshman year of college, a 101-level American History class at any insitution in America: we’re discussing as a group the history of Native American/government relations. The class with your students will likely be able to cite Sitting Bull and Geronimo with little else and likely without any context. A class would need just two students who know their local history – we’ll use one from your school and one from Cooperstown – to contrast and compare Osceola’s war with the United States government to Joseph Brant’s cooperation with the British during the American Revolution. These are two very different conversations in terms of richness, academic/intellectual and social value.

Please reconsider your stance on this issue – our current identity and the social/intellectual fertility of our future depend on it.

Matthew K. Tabor
mktabor@gmail.com
http://www.matthewktabor.com

3 Responses to “In Defense of Teaching State and Local History”

  1. Jonathan says:

    Local history tends to demand more detail than broad-stroke national history. And those details, that’s what’s out of fashion.

    Wasn’t the fifth nation from the south, captured and brought up north? And Brant ended up in Ontario? I am supposed to know this stuff…

  2. Matthew says:

    It absolutely demands more – a distinct problem with teaching state/local history is that an increasing percentage of history teachers don’t come from the area in which they end up teaching.

    The Mohawk Tribe is native to New York and stretched north through Canada [and still do]. Brant was originally from Ohio – his story is absolutely fascinating. He was brought to the Leatherstocking Region and was then educated at Wheelock’s school – the ancestor of Dartmouth College – and worked his way to influence with the Mohawk.

    I imagine he interested Londoners quite a bit when he came to visit in 1775.

  3. Jonathan says:

    OK, I found it. The “Sixth” tribe, the Tuscarora, were from North Carolina. They lost a war with the colonists and their Catawba allies (1711?), and found refuge with the Oneida or Onondagas in central New York.

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