Column: Expecting more of students is good, but flexibility needed

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Set the wayback machine to the spring of 1979, to the day before the big test in my 11th grade American History class. I was waiting for the teacher to get things started, listening to the chatting and gossiping around me. On that day, instead of ignoring me, other students were asking what I thought would be on the big test. I told them it would probably be easy stuff, basic questions about the American Revolution and the Civil War.

&uot;What were those about?&uot; one kid asked.

&uot;The French,&uot; someone answered. &uot;They fought the British. And the Civil War was like Indians and cavalry and stuff.&uot;

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I was amazed. These were popular kids who always seemed to do well in school, but they didn’t even remember our own struggle for independence or the war in which we nearly destroyed ourselves. We had just spent several months going over these events, how could they not know? As I listened, though, it became clear that there was a lot more they didn’t know, like who the president was, for one.

Their ignorance bothered me, but since I already carried the burden of being the smartest kid in class, I didn’t want to be the one to point out how many things they had wrong. So I let the teacher do it when he corrected their exams.

It still bothers me today when other Americans don’t know things about history I think they should. Only my list has expanded to items beyond the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and the name of the current president.

It bothers me because being an American is not something that we become just by being born in a particular part of North America. One of the things that make us unique as a nation is that anyone from anywhere can become a genuine American. The rights and responsibilities of each American citizen arise out of the constitution; so we become &uot;real&uot; Americans when we understand how that document governs our life together. Skin color, ancestry, religion, sexuality, and gender &045; all of that is irrelevant when it comes to being an American. So we need to study the events and personalities of our past. We need to understand how laws are made and how the free enterprise system works.

The recent release of the Social Studies standards by the Minnesota Department of Education is what prompted my trip through the wayback machine. As I reviewed the 56 pages of standards and benchmark recommendations from the task force, I found myself pulled in two different directions.

Since a lack of knowledge about the things included in Social Studies classes deprives students of necessary information on the road to becoming a &uot;real&uot; American, I’m all for making students demonstrate that they know the things on their list. But I also object to the fact that the task force appears to have gone beyond just creating a list of things that will be tested; their proposed standards and benchmarks are more like a statewide Social Studies curriculum. And it’s an ambitious curriculum. Here’s one example: It requires sixth-graders to understand the political and economic realities of ancient Greece and Rome and how they affected the creation of the institutions that govern our lives here in the United States. How many of the men and women currently serving as legislators can do that?

Are the events and people and processes on the list important? Yes. Should students know all of these things by the time they graduate from high school? Maybe. I do know that if the standards remain as they are proposed now, legislators and civil servants alike should be required to pass the state social studies test in order to keep their jobs.

One glimmer of hope exists, however, because the Social Studies standards are not final yet. They won’t be imposed on students and schools until after a series of public meetings being held statewide is over. One of those meetings is coming up at the Albert Lea High School on Wednesday, Oct. 22, starting at 7 p.m. Whether you see this or any of the new standards proposals as an ambitious curriculum rewrite or simply a comprehensive list of standards, coming to that meeting is one way to show that we adults have learned the most important lesson taught in our Social Studies classes: We have both the right and the responsibility to take part in public decision-making about issues like this.

(David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.)