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Another View - William Dunlap: The alarming history deficit for NH school kids

July 02. 2017 11:19PM

The New Hampshire Historical Society has more than 50 years’ experience teaching Granite State students. There are 10,000 to 15,000 school children every year receiving our history programming, either on field trips to the society in Concord, or in programs we deliver in the classrooms. Most of these students are fourth graders, which is the traditional year to teach state history. About 70 percent of the state’s fourth graders participate in at least one of our education programs.

Many elementary classroom teachers who visit us report that their schools are eliminating or dramatically limiting social studies instruction. Their statements are supported by research published in a reputable academic journal showing that social studies instructional time in elementary grades has dropped dramatically in the United States. In some New Hampshire schools, there is no class time at all, and in many other cases it is minimal.

The society’s education staff has observed a precipitous decline in basic historical knowledge among our student visitors, particularly in the past five years. We recently have had to stop presenting a program called “New Hampshire at War” because most of the school kids we see now lack the requisite baseline knowledge to understand the program. They do not know what the American Revolution was, or even that we fought the British. They cannot list in correct chronological order the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. This decline has been abrupt. This program years ago was one of the society’s more popular outreach programs for elementary schools.

The society has had to alter other programs to reflect that more and more students don’t know basic facts about either state or national history. When students do not know who America fought in the Revolutionary War you know we are in trouble.

This knowledge deficit has dramatic consequences that go far beyond producing well-rounded students. Kids need an understanding of how our civic institutions work so they can become fully participating citizens and educated voters. They need a basic understanding of American history to be able to contextualize problems and keep them in perspective. In short, a poor understanding of American institutions has alarming implications for American democracy and American civic values. While workforce development is an important consideration, it will do little good to have a workforce if we have lost our republic.

We can begin to address this crisis by renewing the history and civics curriculum, particularly at the elementary level. New Hampshire schools currently use the K-12 Social Studies Curriculum Framework, which was adopted by the New Hampshire Department of Education in 2006. The framework is vague, and has no accountability mechanism. And Common Core, which came into use around 2010, has no social studies component.

We must designate time in our schools for history and civics as we’ve done for math and English. New Hampshire plays a unique role in the national political life, one that requires our citizens to be well-informed and knowledgeable in American norms and ideals. Our role confers a special obligation to see that our students are properly educated in history and civics so that they too may one day contribute to New Hampshire’s and the nation’s civic life.

William Dunlap is president of the New Hampshire Historical Society.

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