Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 15

The Ignorance of South Dakota Education Officials

            The other day the South Dakota Board of Education voted to end the requirement in South Dakota of teaching early American History. This means that students in South Dakota will no longer be learning about the American Revolution, the Early Republic, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, the Antebellum period, and the Civil War. Most likely Reconstruction will be tossed as well. South Dakota’s kids will grow up not knowing why the United States was created.  This is an utter travesty and one that is extremely flawed.

            It seems that the people who made this decision were science educators which means they focus on STEM, not liberal arts. Note that no STEM classes were dropped, just early American History. Is it not already bad enough that many Americans have no clue of our nation’s past? If anything, students need more history education. They also need a good education and that means requiring all history teachers to have a BA in History. No more coaches teaching history with no education in the subject. 

            I will say that South Dakota has done a good job in pushing “new standards that are intended to guide the teaching and learning of content, concepts and skills like inquiry, communication, critical thinking and problem solving.” I agree wholeheartedly with that idea. Here’s the thing. History classes are the best classes for meeting those standards. Sam Wineburg has promoted this at Stanford for several years. He is not alone. Other history educators have been saying the same for a long time. Peter Seixas and Bob Bain are long time advocates of history education.

     The problem is when decisions are made that reject historical education in favor of classes that are seen as more desirable for the job market. Let’s face it, STEM is overrated. There are more STEM degree holders than jobs available. The US Census of 2010 showed 74% of STEM degree holders working in different fields. That in itself is not unusual as over half of all undergraduate degree holders work in different fields than the degree they earned. The emphasis on STEM comes from a perceived shortfall between the US and other nations in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Multiple reports from politicians and corporate leaders talk about a STEM shortage, yet the facts do not support that talk. 

            In fact, speaking with human resource agents we find something else entirely. It appears that many of our STEM graduates have problems writing and communicating. HR agents are on the hunt for people who can understand STEM people and communicate between them which while not efficient seems to be the only way companies can get their tech employees to work in teams. Imagine how some courses in history and English might have helped to solve those problems? This is where the core of a liberal arts degree comes into focus. The base of that degree is in K-12. 

            Unfortunately, the incessant mania for STEM is starting to generate the degradation of that base. That is what I think is taking place in South Dakota. I do like their standards and the ways they have set up to go about achieving them. Removing Early American History however is a massive mistake. It is the base foundation of American historical knowledge. It must remain. It should be emphasized. I teach at the community college and I routinely have students who do not know the basic elements of history, let alone American History. 

            When asked why, the number one answer is they didn’t learn much from their instructors. Some did and I think that is great, but the majority did not. Is that the fault of their school or the fault of their instructors?

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