Squeezing out Iowa's history

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Gov. Terry Branstad and I are on the same page. Not a typo.

The governor praised a report out Tuesday from the Iowa History Advisory Committee, a panel formed by the Iowa Department of Education to consider how our state’s history is being covered, or not covered, in public schools. It found wide gaps, with 52 percent of more than 300 educators and stakeholders surveyed reporting no Iowa history component in their social studies curriculum. Among schools teaching Iowa history, emphasis varies widely.

“I believe the emphasis on our state’s history needs to be a priority in our classrooms,” said Branstad, who will have been governor for roughly 14 percent of Iowa’s post-statehood history when, or if, he leaves office in January 2019.

I second the governor’s sentiment, as a proud graduate of Mrs. Cook’s fifth grade Iowa history class. Countless times I’ve recalled knowledge first acquired in that classroom, from invading glaciers to Iowa’s sacrifices in the Civil War. We didn’t get much further in eight weeks.

My kids don’t get that far. My Linn-Mar freshman and sixth-grader recall a short Iowa unit in fourth grade as a gateway to learning about the states. “We did the state rock and the plants, the easy stuff,” the sixth-grader reports. “There are no mountains.”

I can’t argue with that.

I also can’t fault schools now buried under curriculum requirements, most demanding more emphasis on reading, math and science. That makes sense, but social studies as a whole is being squeezed out. Teachers roped in by mandates struggle to keep up with requirements, let alone extras.

But what do we stand to lose? This doesn’t strike me as a moment in our history when Americans know too much about our history. Fresh evidence to the contrary, served daily.

Iowa’s past also is slipping our minds. Even among these 300-plus educators and history stakeholders, 49 percent believed Iowa became a state in 1848, instead of the actual date of 1846. Only about half knew Edna Griffin as the “Rosa Parks of Iowa” who fought segregated lunch counters in Des Moines. Forty percent didn’t know Arabella Mansfield was the first female lawyer in the United States after being admitted to the Iowa bar.

Ask these folks what’s needed to revive Iowa history education, and 72 percent say more resources, 62 percent want more professional development and 58 percent say Iowa history should be included in Iowa’s social studies standards. New social studies standards about to be released likely will include Iowa history. The report calls for developing new curriculum and resources.

Unfortunately, we’ve heard this before. In 1989 and during the Vilsack administration, Iowa history initiatives popped up and receded like glaciers. Again, this week, I don’t hear much talk of how schools will make room for new history efforts, or how they’ll pay for them with stagnant state funding.

Maybe we can get creative. Perhaps the private sector can step up. After all, as the report points out, places with a strong sense of history and heritage tend to be more economically vibrant. If I can agree with the governor, anything’s possible.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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