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.