Bruce Dearstyne: New York History And Education

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State Education Building by Matt Wade Photography (Wikimedia User UpstateNYer)How, and how much, should New York’s young people learn about the history of their own state and community?

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.


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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

4 thoughts on “Bruce Dearstyne: New York History And Education

  1. James S. Kaplan

    This is an interesting and thoughtful discussion about the current professional thinking on the teaching of history in New York State. As I believe this is a subject of great importance, I applaud the efforts of those involved, and certainly would like to see greater public discussion of these issues.

    On June 24,2014, I wrote for this blog a somewhat longer piece called “NYS History: A View from the Street” which in essence argued from a layman’s perspective that the need and demand for imparting historical knowledge about New York to New Yorkers is both essential and significantly un met.

  2. Dave Ruch

    Thank you for this article Dr. Dearstyne. I too am concerned about the future of NYS and local history content in education. In my recent work in K-12 schools as a teaching artist (with a focus on local, regional and state history), I have seen a few issues working against a more robust focus on our state’s stories:

    a) Social Studies as a category, across the board and in spite of the newly drafted and Regents-adopted curriculum, has been de-emphasized in the new STEM paradigm and with the Common Core focus on ELA and Math. Much of the SS content at the elementary school level now falls under the ELA category, and only for part of the school year

    b) many schools have completely eliminated field trips to museums in an effort to save money, instruction time, or both. Distance learning programs offered by museums and other cultural institutions can bridge some of this gap, but museum visits are down and the trend seems to be continuing in that direction

    I have been combating the first issue by tailoring my programming to the SS content within the ELA modules for each specific grade level, and the second one by offering a slate of these programs via a distance learning platform that can be accessed by every classroom in the state (and beyond) with a SMART Board or other internet-connected screen.

    Here’s hoping we can all ride this current tide and come out on the other end with a greater focus on, and interest in, New York State and local history.

  3. Peter Evans

    NYS History is not learned in the schools, though they used to make a better attempt at it than they do today.
    History is learned in the home and on the road during family ottings, travels and vacations.
    Every mile provides an educational opportunity. We never passed a state historic site or park w/o stopping, we never passed a historic marker or other signage w/o pulling over to read it. This then became the focus for discussion for the next 5 – 10 miles or until interrupted by the next site or marker. We made up games to keep us focused on the farms, villages and geography we were passing. Why did we do this? Because that is what our parents did. Gues what, today I watch our children “subjecting” our grandchildren to the same rigor. This tells me that it must not have been seen as punishment…actually we all had a really good time.
    We made it a point to hit ever county, state and National Park. We visited every museum we could find. Places like the George Eastman House, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Corning Glas Museum….we hit them multiple times….like about every 5 years as they aged and matured. We took them to NYC, Boston, Philly, Washington….etc. We hit the Forts and the Cannonball curcuit…went to Annapolis and West Point numerous times….New York State history can and will be learned at Gettysburg and Antietam. You can not go anywhere, pretty much, on this globe w/o bumping into NYS History. This is not an experience that can be taught in the classroom. Engaged parents produce smart interesting kids…it has very little to do with genetics or money. Both of our kids have a TV in their house….however, weeks can go by and you may never see it turned on. There simply is too much exciting going on just living life everyday.
    You can not turn history over to the teachers in our schools most don’t know one single scrap of NYS History and you can not learn it in one quick overview course. I’d rather have them teach geography so they can appreciate what they see when the look out of a car window. The history will come along naturally with a properly inquisitive mind…..but then geography is science isn’t it? Oh well.

  4. richard forliano

    The teaching of local history is much more than teaching about place. Local history focuses on the bonds that ties communities together, the lesson that can be learned from past mistakes, and most important about identity. The people, events, and places that exist in your own backyard tie communities to their state, country, and sometimes to the larger world community. Some communities like my own have roots that go back more than 3 1/2 centuries and others do not. What is necessary is an alliance of educators, community volunteers, museums, historical agencies, trained historians, writers, researchers, and politicians to develop ways to focus more on what makes their communities unique as well as the bonds that their municipalities have with the larger world. It is important in New York State to create packets of primary source material (documents, pictures, maps, oral history, etc.) that educators can use with their students. If the ELA standard want non fiction material from the Social Studies, what could be better than using materials from your local history,

    But this poses a dilemma. Some communities do not have local histories that are documented as well as others. County historians and historical societies can help but older communities with supporting agencies are at an advantage.

    Rich Forliano


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