I don't remember exactly when I took North Carolina state history, only that it must have been sometime in the mid-'70s, during those awful junior high years when social survival eclipsed everything else.
I do remember some of the history, though--even a few final-exam-caliber specifics. Like how a North Carolina-born president named James Polk started the Mexican War. And how a ship called the Albemarle snuck through two Union steamers, sank one and ran the other off, thus allowing Confederate troops to retake Plymouth. Mostly, though, what I remember are the images: Blackbeard's head hanging from the rigging of the sloop sent to capture him; would-be Spanish settlers hightailing it out of the snake-infested swamps of eastern North Carolina; Sherman's men torching forests of longleaf pines--one tree at a time--by setting fire to the rosin being harvested for turpentine.
These stories and images are familiar to nearly everyone who grew up in the North Carolina public schools; they've been taught in the state's middle schools, more or less continuously, for more than 60 years, and it's hard to imagine our children and grandchildren doing without them. Yet that may well be what the State Board of Education has in mind. Two months ago, a committee of parents and teachers proposed social studies curriculum changes that would decrease the amount of state history taught, replacing the bulk of it with world history. Specifically, the two-semester class in North Carolina history, now taught in the eighth grade, would be distilled and inserted into a fourth-grade geography class. Meanwhile, middle school history classes would be devoted to Latin America, Canada, Asia, Africa and Europe.
Why? "North Carolina has gone global," a social studies consultant told The News & Observer. "If we're going to be No. 1 in 2010, we've got to do our part in social studies."
Just so I'll know--and this is strictly parenthetical--but is it some sort of bad joke that public school administrators are always talking about North Carolina schools being No.1? Like the time the Durham Public Schools mortified everyone by adopting the motto "World-Class"? Couldn't the state focus on getting to adequate and go from there? (To give you an idea how bad things are, the first menu option on the automated answering service for the State Board of Education offers information about private schools.)
Number one or not, to the extent that North Carolina has "gone global," it would be hard to argue against increasing the amount of world history taught in the public schools. But at the expense of our own state history?
In my North Carolina history class there was a girl I'll call Beverly whose family had moved to Boston when she was in elementary school. By the time she was in junior high, they'd moved back. One day at school we were discussing the state's early agricultural failures and successes. We learned, for instance, that lemons couldn't weather the winters, but that corn and tobacco did well, and peaches grew so fast and thick there were plenty for the hogs as well as the people.
I remember wondering, at the time, if that was why ham tasted so good, but not everyone was charmed. "That. Is. Gross." Beverly announced to the class. Later, in the lunch room, Beverly still had her knickers in a twist. She primly ate her snickerdoodle cookie, all the while defaming the rube state she was forced to call home. She had just about convinced the whole table that we were a passel of yahoos when a teacher--one of those roaming cafeteria monitors--put a hand on Beverly's head to hush her. This was one of those teachers who countered ugly behavior with rhetorically ornate mini-lessons-in-life. We ducked and waited for the metaphor. "This is your home state, young lady," the teacher said. "Cut your roots and your blooms will never blossom."
Beverly was an anomaly. For most of the students in my North Raleigh middle school, North Carolina was home. The majority of us were born here, and many could trace their families back several generations. (Blackbeard's fate interested me in part because he was an in-law.) One classmate of mine claimed kin to Earl Granville; another to Zeb Vance. It seemed natural to learn about the state for which we felt pride and a casual affection, as to a family member you couldn't shake if you wanted to. I know that many of us went on to live in or travel to other parts of the world, but as children North Carolina seemed big, and rich. We had mountains and beaches, swamps and caves and sand pits. We had Tweetsie Railroad and Fort Fisher and Jockey's Ridge and Mildred the Bear.
Of course, things were already changing in North Carolina in the mid-'70s. The Research Triangle Park was pulling families in from Chicago and Syracuse and other exotic places, and we all went about adjusting to the changes. Kitchen doors were not always open for morning coffee. Accents were hard to understand. Just as my brothers and I were starting to get friendly with the new family in the house behind us, we learned that, while living in a foreign country, they had nearly traded their daughter for a herd of livestock. It set us back.
That was 25 years ago. Today, North Raleigh, and most of the Triangle, is home to transients of many races and classes. You can buy sushi at the Harris Teeter, jalapeños at the local tienda. For children whose cultural references are Pok&233;mon and the World Wide Web, the idea of studying the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, or the birth of the textile industry, might seem, well, quaint.
Depleting North Carolina history would certainly fit the trend away from studying regional or even national history--a trend created in part by a growing squeamishness over looking too patriotic, xenophobic, white or Western. If you've had children who've been forced through the "multicultural" grinder, you know how gruesome it can be. I'm happy to have my children read poetry from the Zimbabwe bush, but only if it's good, and only if it doesn't displace Wallace Stevens. In fairness to the committee that came up with the proposed curriculum change, there's nothing to indicate they were motivated by this squeamishness. They simply want to create a curriculum that reflects a different, more "global" reality.
Still, you have to wonder whether cutting North Carolina history is the right move. Childhood is about building base camps of all kinds: emotional, cognitive, intellectual. The tougher the summit ahead, the more urgent the need for a good base camp. In her herbaceous way, that cafeteria monitor was right: Cut the roots and the blossoms wither. In fact, I'll extend the metaphor to say that only by standing on the roots can you smell those blossoms. Years ago, while tutoring a student in an adult literacy program, we discovered that the only book available to us that day was about the potato famines in Ireland. I apologized, but he was enthusiastic. "Actually," he said, "did you know that potatoes came to Ireland from the Indians who lived near Roanoke Island?"
I don't mean to argue that teaching more world history is a bad idea. It's a fabulous idea. And what about more emphasis on foreign language? Is there any discipline that puts a child more completely in contact with the world out there? Nor do I mean to say that North Carolina history is taught especially well, or that ugly truths about our state's past have no place in our public schools.
It is to say that, taught well and imaginatively, North Carolina's history is a great story. It's about people struggling to settle a new land, enduring hardships and committing atrocities. It's about what it meant to fight a revolutionary war for freedom, only to turn around and abuse the very ideal of freedom. It's about an ongoing struggle to acknowledge the humanity of every citizen of the state. These aren't obsolete stories, they make up the epic narrative of our state's beginnings, and their themes are universal. How many of the world's living tyrants do we recognize in Edmund Fanning and his contempt for the "common people"? How many modern examples of genocide and "ethnic cleansing" favor the Cherokee Indians' Trail of Tears? How many regimes of hate have been illuminated by events like the Greensboro sit-in?
North Carolina's history is filled with tales of struggle and human dignity, of justice and injustice. Pok&233;mon does nothing to diminish them.
Not long ago, I had a high school teacher explain to me that students were apathetic about history because they no longer felt they played a role in making it. Certainly it's harder today for children to feel their generation matters. When we were in middle school, the courts ordered bussing to integrate the public schools. It was clear to us, on pretty much a daily basis, that we were making history.
For 14-year-olds today, things may seem relatively tame, the heavy stuff happening out there in the world somewhere, the Middle East, North Korea, the International Space Station. And yet, as a state, we continue to struggle with profoundly important questions, about the death penalty, race relations, civil rights and the environment.
And, interestingly, the stakes are getting higher all the time, not only because the issues are important, but because the U.S. Supreme Court, with its conservative edge, is putting more and more power into the hands of the states. In the name of what Chief Justice William Rehnquist calls the "New Federalism," the court is washing its hands (and the hands of Congress) of a wide spate of issues, from age discrimination to the Americans with Disabilities Act to the environment.
With George W. Bush in office, and a Republican majority in Congress, this trend is likely to continue; at least for the next several years, North Carolinians are likely to have more and more say on how crucial issues are handled in our state. If that's true, wouldn't it be important for all of us to have the firmest possible grasp of our state's identity? To be able to view current crises in context? To understand where we have succeeded and where we have failed? Wouldn't it be important, in short, for us to know who we are?
The State Board of Education will vote on the proposed curriculum changes in December. If you want to voice your opinion, come to the Department of Public Instruction public hearing on March 21 at the Professional Development Center on Hillandale Road in Durham. The hearing starts at 3 p.m. For more information, call 807-3401.