RALEIGH – The future of history is now in North Carolina.
OK, so that statement is a little chronologically confusing. The point is that there is a clear need for leadership on the issue of history education. The fact is that we continue to graduate generations of North Carolinians from our schools and colleges who do not have a firm grounding in the history of our country, the history of our state, and how our founding principles and experiences affect – or should affect – our lives today.
History matters. I don’t mean in a “Jeopardy,” quiz bowl, instant-recall, when-was-the-War-of-1812 sense. It may seem hackneyed to ask this, but how can we move forward as a state or a nation unless we have a clear picture of where we have been? The international and national challenges we face, the controversial social and moral issues of the day, the dramatic changes we are experiencing in such areas as industry, trade, finance, medicine, and technology – none of these sprang up suddenly, as Athena from the head of Zeus. They all have antecedents and causes stretching into past decades and centuries.
It is particularly important in this election season to consider the role that history plays in forming and framing our political sentiments. Some voters still bear allegiance to one party or another based on fond remembrances of long-dead presidents. Not a few North Carolinians, no matter how they actually vote, still instinctively recoil from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Others, with good reason to revere Lincoln, nevertheless recoil from the GOP because of Joe McCarthy or Richard Nixon. Still others have reasons deeply rooted in history for their antipathy of Democrats. You can make a similar point about voter attitudes on issues as disparate as Social Security, Iraq, health, abortion, or same-sex marriage. These attitudes often reflect longstanding assumptions, valid or not, about historical events, trends, and personalities.
At its core, a representative form of government is workable over time only if voters are informed. Without a firm grounding in political, economic, and social history, voters will too often lack the ability to put issues in context, to evaluate contrasting claims and discern truth from fiction.
That firm grounding appears to be lacking. In the most recent statewide test in U.S. History, only 55 percent of North Carolina high-school students scored at the proficient level – itself not likely to be a particularly rigorous standard given what we know about the questions and scoring of tests in lower grades. On the National Assessment of Education Progress, where the standards are set more appropriately, a shocking 57 percent of American students in 2001 lacked even minimal history knowledge. Only 11 percent were at or above the proficient level. While not enough students were sampled to provide NAEP data by state, it is likely that North Carolina’s performance would be at or below that dismal national showing.
What can be done? Certainly we need to expect more of our schools in teaching history and the related subjects of civics and economics. But other institutions can do their part, too. A good example would be the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. A beautiful building in a courtyard that also features the state’s natural science museum, the museum currently has five long-term exhibits. They cover the history of health and healing experiences, the life of Carbine Williams, a “sports hall of fame,” a collection of history projects from North Carolina students, and a display of the museum’s holdings concerning the Civil War. Temporary exhibits at this writing include “A Celebration of North Carolina Craft,” “Pioneers of Aviation,” “Man-Made Marvels,” “North Carolina Indians Past and Present,” and a tribute to Clay Aiken.
I’m not saying these some of these exhibits aren’t interesting or informative. But are these the priorities that we want visiting schoolchildren to embrace? I don’t think so. Museum visitors learn little about the entrepreneurs and business leaders who developed the state’s major industries. They learn little about past political leaders and their successes and failures. There is no coherent or memorable narrative.
Here’s an idea: what if the museum devoted significant space and resources to telling the compelling story of North Carolina’s struggle for liberty? Imagine a “First In Freedom” exhibit that begins with pre-Columbian artifacts and tells the story of how and why people came to settle North Carolina – some seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, others forced in chains to a distant and unfriendly shore. You’d see the Wars of the Regulation, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and North Carolinians’ experiences overseas in the 20th century wars against tyranny. You’d see slaves struggle to their feet, cast off their chains, and demand their economic and civil rights. You’d see women overcome prejudice and economic barriers to achieve equality and realize their potential.
The main justification for having a tax-funded history museum in the first place is to continue and amplify the mission of public education. We need to inspire students to care about their past, and to appreciate how it influences their lives today. The museum can help do that, and serve as a catalyst for a broader movement to make history education a priority in North Carolina – a movement powered not by words but by action.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.