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Editorial: Improving history education

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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K-12 students in the United States often learn about national history, then move on to European or world history, sometimes going to college and learning about other specific parts of the world, but all too often, the history of what happened in our own backyards is barely even skimmed over. Fortunately, there seems to be an effort to rectify this quirk of historical education, at least in Iowa.

The Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities will collaborate with the University of Iowa to create a new online Iowa history class and resource website, Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, and UI President Sally Mason announced Oct. 24.

This is a positive development, and we encourage Iowa’s educators and lawmakers to continue working to make historical information easier to access and to place more emphasis on teaching Iowans about state and local history.

It’s nothing short of bizarre that parts of history, which are so immediate and relevant, are so often disregarded in the education system. A greater emphasis on teaching state and local history can surely show how national and even international trends affected Iowa communities. It’s obviously going to be easier for Iowans to understand history and their place in the world through the prism of their ancestors’ experience than through tales of legendary figures such as George Washington or Napoleon Bonaparte. Making local history more relatable by juxtaposing it with broader historical events and trends seems as if it could boost interest in the subject among the general public. Maybe it could even help mitigate the boredom many students feel as they trudge through the subject in K-12 schools.

There are still some historical topics that deserve better coverage, such as how Native American tribes felt about those gun-wielding, disease-spreading white people who took their land and (intentionally or unintentionally) killed most of them off. Along with women’s suffrage, the labor movement, Reconstruction, and several other sections of U.S. history, there remain some pretty big gaps in historical education, though there’s been improvement in recent years. It only fits that as these holes in history are filled, local and state history is also given the attention it deserves.

To only emphasize what happens on the large scale is to minimize the contributions of ordinary people and communities that helped society get from point A to point B. After all, George Washington, as brilliant as he may have been, could not have won the Revolutionary War without soldiers — or help from the French.

Students cannot properly understand history on the macro level without understanding the micro, and if they can understand the lives of ordinary people who lived through the events they learn about in history books, that makes the topic much easier to understand.

Knowing Iowa’s history can also help solve real-world problems. It is impossible to understate the challenge that globalization poses to the state’s economy. This economic change surely presents enormous opportunities, and knowing the history of their own towns and state can help Iowans determine the best path forward by learning from their predecessors’ experience.

History at its core is an essential ingredient to understanding how the world works. It is therefore vital to education and especially important that Iowans do not gloss over their own history.


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