The answer to the question of what young people learn about history comes down mostly to what they learn in school social studies classes. New York revised its social studies curriculum from 2012 to 2014 and you can review the results, adopted by the Regents last April online. There is more New York history at the 4th grade level than in the older standards, but almost nothing about local history.
There is also somewhat more on New York at the Grade 7-8 level which covers “History of the United States and New York” than the superseding curriculum document. But New York is arguably the nation’s historically important state. New York’s historical leadership and greatness are muted and understated in the new Grade 7-8 document. For instance, it does not mention a single New York governor, writer, or company.
But the story is continuing. As The New York History Blog reported on July 31st, the state is seeking experts to write the implementation guidelines for the new social studies documents.That might be an opportunity to infuse more about community and state history into what gets taught in the future.
Johanna Porr when she was appointed director of the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands a couple of years ago, commented that ”Newburgh is a fascinating place. We call it ‘History City’ because you can take any major movement and tie it back here somehow; you can always find a way to understand the scope of American history through the narratives that are available in Newburgh.” Something similar could be said of just about any community in our state.
An entirely different perspectives comes from the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums. The Center’s director, Elizabeth Merritt, has for some years advocated the position that museums need to get more directly into the education business. You can follow the Center’s work, including their “Trends Watch,” online. It pertains to museums, but that includes history museums and much of what they cover and advocate pertains to historical societies, other historical programs, and cultural programs generally.
“America is on the cusp of transformational change in the educational system,” says their newest report, Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem. “The current structure has been destabilized by rising dissatisfaction with the formal education system, the proliferation of nontraditional forms of primary education and funding crises at state and local levels.” Museums, including history museums, spend more than $2 billion a year on education and receive more than 55 million visits each year from students in school groups. They create educational programs, often tailored to the needs of state and local curriculum requirements, in government, civics, history and related fields.
“It looks like the U.S. is headed into a century in which museums, as experts in immersive, experiential, self-directed, hands-on learning, will be sailing into the educational mainstream rather than eddying at the fringe,” predicts Elizabeth Merritt in the introduction to the report. “There are strong indicators… that the next era of education will be characterized by self-directed, experiential, social and distributed learning that is designed to foster the 21st century skills of critical thinking, synthesis of information, innovation, creativity, and teamwork.”
Putting museums into the mainstream education business would require changes in each state, including “a certification system for education that recognizes schools for their support of self-directed, experiential learning,” the report notes.
The report is useful to consider for everyone concerned with the future of state and local history in New York. It has numerous suggestions for blending the work of the institutions that preserve history with education, broadly defined.