History teaching as important as ever

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By Rita Aragon

Imagine a world in which students don’t understand how the past can serve as  a road map for the future. They never learn how wars fought a century, a decade  or even five years ago can provide lessons for future conflict. They don’t learn  why being an educated voter is important.

With multiple combat missions in the Middle  East and economic crises throughout the world, I cannot think of a more  important time in recent memory that students in Oklahoma need to understand history.

Without learning about ourselves, we cannot possibly understand our  future.

As a former elementary teacher and principal in Oklahoma, I have witnessed  the importance of a well-rounded student. Writing creates the next great author.  Science and math create the next tech genius. The arts create the next great  musician. History, however, creates the next great American.

Thomas  Jefferson believed American schooling should focus on history. He said, “The  people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty. History, by apprising  them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future. It will avail them of  the experience of other times and other nations. It will qualify them as judges  of the actions and designs of men.”

With 2011 giving us the greatest leaps in world democracy in ages,  Jefferson’s words ring as true today as when he said them in 1781.

For Oklahoma, there’s good news and bad news. Last year, a SoonerPoll survey  commissioned by the Oklahoma  Council of Public Affairs showed that more than four out of 10 Oklahoma high  school graduates flunk a test of basic knowledge about American government. Our  numbers compare slightly worse than the national average. Newsweek recently reported that just less than four out of 10 Americans flunk the test  taken by immigrants looking to become U.S. citizens.

The good news for Oklahoma is that our students’ numbers are improving.  According to the state Department  of Education, in 2010, 71 percent of Oklahoma fifth-grade students were  deemed proficient in social studies and U.S. history, up from 68 percent in  2009.

While these numbers are encouraging, work remains. That’s why I am excited to  emcee the professional development workshop, “A Day of History,” on April 29 at  the Oklahoma  History Center. Teachers and the general public across Oklahoma are invited  to learn about ways to make the nation’s founding come alive from nationally  known author and historian David  Barton and University  of Oklahoma professor J.  Rufus Fears. Those interested can find more information at the Professional Oklahoma Educators website.

Oklahoma is blessed with great history teachers. But like all teachers, in  today’s world, they compete against the latest gadgets and reality TV for their  student’s attention. For Oklahoma to move forward, we need students who  understand our past. With recent developments across the globe, history remains  as important as ever. I encourage Oklahomans to regard it that way.

Aragon is  secretary of the Oklahoma  Department of Veterans Affairs.

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