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Teaching Arkansas history

A bill to put teeth into the law requiring public schools to teach our children Arkansas history failed to clear the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

It’s not a surprise.

But it’s a crying shame.

As you might expect, the usual cast had problems with the bill, which is sponsored by one of my favorite legislators, Sen. Mary Anne Salmon of North Little Rock.

The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators opposed the bill.

The Arkansas School Boards Association opposed the bill.

Even Tom Kimbrell, who heads the Arkansas Department of Education, stepped up to express concerns.

It’s always easy to find reasons not to do something.

“There are too many requirements already.”

“We’re too busy.”

Etc. Etc.

If you’ve spent much time in either the House Education Committee or the Senate Education Committee through the years, you know the drill.

I listened to the testimony on this bill on the same day two other things occurred — I learned that Chef Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel had indeed won the Food & Wine magazine competition for best chef in the Midwest (even though Arkansas isn’t a Midwestern state; blame the magazine’s New York editors for not knowing), and I was handed the inaugural issue of Arkansauce, the state’s new food journal that’s published by the Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.

Go back and read the post I did last week that was titled “Learning To Love Ourselves.” In it, I noted that while his cooking is indeed world class, Chef Lee’s real gift to our state is that he began to make us appreciate the things we already had due to his intense focus on local foods and local producers.

Meanwhile, in the introduction I wrote as the guest editor of Arkansauce, I said: “Unlike our boastful Texas neighbors, we quietly prepare great barbecue and other foods, enjoy eating it and then move on with our lives. Because the natives don’t brag, Arkansas food has never received the national recognition it deserves. In addition to the modesty of the natives, a reason for the lack of national recognition might be that people from outside the state have a hard time figuring Arkansas out. … The thing all parts of Arkansas have in common is that her people, while never boastful, are proud.”

Proud, yes.

Yet too many of us still carry the burden of that infamous Arkansas inferiority complex.

I feel strongly that teaching this state’s story (warts and all) to the children in our public schools — most of whom will remain in Arkansas and raise their families here — is among the most important things we can do.

Other states — think Texas — do a far better job of it than we do.

During the 2009 legislative session, Sen. Salmon sponsored a bill creating the Legislative Task Force On Arkansas History. She was the co-chairman of that task force along with Rep. Rick Saunders of Hot Springs.

There are some schools that do a good job of teaching Arkansas history. A lot of them do a poor job. The irony is that we now have more quality materials on Arkansas history than ever before.

The task force, which worked for more than a year, included representatives of state agencies, teachers and parents.

A 1997 law calls for 15 hours of annual instruction in state history for kindergarten through the fourth grade, 30 hours in the fifth and sixth grades and a one-semester history class for high school students.

The problem is that the law doesn’t have teeth and is too often ignored.

The bill that failed Wednesday would have required schools to document the time teachers spend on Arkansas history instruction and would have required high school seniors to pass an Arkansas history competency exam.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association said schools should focus on things such as math, literacy and science because “pride in the state will be derived by job opportunities and economic opportunities.”

I must beg to differ with his overall premise.

Are our schools in the business of simply teaching children to obtain jobs?

Or should our schools instead try to teach children — hopefully supplementing what’s learned at home, in church and in extracurricular activities — how to live a well-rounded, satisfying life?

I admit to an inherent bias. I come from a liberal arts background. I went to a liberal arts college. I majored in communications and minored in political science and history. I now work for our state’s 11 private colleges and universities.

Still, I believe all of us should be concerned by movements in our education system to get away from preparing the whole person.

Are we really educating or are we simply doing job training?

Bill Gates spoke Monday afternoon in Washington to the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. His comments troubled me. Inside Higher Ed reported the speech this way: “During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.”

Here’s how Gates put it: “In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges — both community and four-year institutions — are doing very well. You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state.

“Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be generous with this sector.’ But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ — you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes.”

So is Gates striking out at the humanities?

Inside Higher Ed said in its story: “Defenders of the liberal arts, especially at public universities, have struggled to come up with a way to prove definitively what many of them believe: that liberal education is crucial to job creation. Vocational programs, whose curriculums are oriented toward teaching specific skills to feed demand in specific industries, are generally able to show their value in more tangible ways than are liberal arts programs, which tend to rely on the faith that their curriculums confer the sort of critical thinking skills that are transferable across different industries and might even give birth to new ones.

“Unfortunately, that kind of value is harder to quantify — and harder to commodify politically. Gates was, after all, talking to a roomful of politicians whose chances at re-election might turn on their ability to show job growth in the short term.”

I’ll conclude with the comments of Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities: “It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for work, life and citizenship. But Gates’ remarks seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than the whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between general education and specific majors that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

I fully realize that I’ve wandered from discussing K-12 education in Arkansas to talking about higher ed. I hope you get my point.

In an era when technology changes so rapidly, those who are simply learning specific job skills will find they constantly need retraining.

Those who have learned to think critically, however, will be able to make transitions more smoothly. And understanding our past is a key part of being able to think critically.

Yesterday’s defeat of Sen. Salmon’s bill was a victory for those who want to simply prepare children to obtain jobs rather than attempting to prepare them to live rich lives.

I’m sad to say that the vote didn’t surprise me in the least. Maybe it wasn’t intended, but here’s the message that was sent to our children: “Arkansas’ fascinating history and culture aren’t important. We have a standardized math test coming up.”

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