Teaching Indiana’s past at higher levels important

By Andrea Neal

Although Indiana’s bicentennial celebration is now history, there is a move in the Indiana General Assembly that has the potential to preserve its legacy for generations to come.

Sens. Eric Koch, R-Bedford (who represents a portion of Bartholomew County), and Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, would commit Indiana high schools to teaching a one-semester elective course on Indiana history.

It would give Hoosier teenagers an opportunity to learn about the political, economic and cultural contributions of their ancestors — an option currently offered in fewer than a dozen school corporations.

“There is something to be said for knowing our state’s history just for the sheer joy it brings. But there are also compelling practical reasons,” said James H. Madison, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University, in a letter to lawmakers endorsing the measure.

“We Hoosiers have a special history, one that more than most states shapes our present policy and our culture,” Madison said. “Our past can be our blessing, sometimes our curse, but it is always with us. It is implicit in all decisions Hoosiers make, including those in the General Assembly.”

In preparation for the bicentennial, Madison, other historians and heritage organizations engaged in extensive new scholarship about Indiana that guarantees a wealth of resources for classrooms. Among many examples, the Indiana Historical Society published “Hoosiers — A New History of Indiana” by Professor Madison; and a Grade 8-12 textbook, “Hoosiers and the American Story.” With funding from Lilly Endowment, the textbook has been distributed free of charge to schools across Indiana.

The Historical Society sponsored a dozen teacher institutes, training social studies teachers in state history and how to integrate the new curricular materials into their existing courses.

What a bicentennial legacy it would be if Hoosiers knew and could share the stories of Indiana — from the exploits of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark to the native resistance movement of Tecumseh to the role played by Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Currently, Indiana history is taught in Grade 4. This is worthwhile, but ask Hoosiers what they remember from elementary grades and they’ll draw a blank. Fourth-Graders are not able to think critically or to draw broad inferences from specific examples. It must be taught in later grades to have impact.

Twenty-seven states require some instruction in state history or state government at the high school level. In Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii, Mississippi and Washington state, a semester-long course is a graduation requirement. In Arkansas, schools must offer a semester of state history between grade 7 and 12. Kansas schools offer a nine-week course of study.

In other states, state history is taught in middle school when a child is developmentally ready for abstract thinking. New York, for example, offers state history in Grade 4 and as a two-year progression in Grades 7 to 8. North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Utah teach state history in Grade 7 or 8.

Hoosier lawmakers continually lament the brain drain without seeking to understand its complex causes. Many of our youth do not have brand loyalty to Indiana. They are not proud of our state because they don’t know anything about it. I recently asked a group of seniors from an Indianapolis high school what they knew about Lew Wallace, Civil War general and author of “Ben Hur,” and the answer was, “Nothing.” That’s shameful.

“History — saved, preserved and most importantly taught — is the foundation for future generations,” said Larry Paarlberg, director of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville. “Without the preservation of our collective histories, future generations will have no grounding in what it means to be an American, or a Hoosier.”

As students learn about their native state, they may find reasons to stay, seek jobs and raise their families in Indiana. Seen in that light, Senate Bill 29 is not just an investment in our children but in our economic future.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.