History Matters

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(HOST) History matters – and the work of a group of students for “National History Day” shows why. Commentator Allen Gilbert explains.

(GILBERT) It took 40 years for state murder charges to be brought in one of the most brutal killings of the Civil Rights era. And it was kids doing a research project for National History Day who were largely responsible for the charges being filed.

Three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi one hot June night in 1964. Federal charges were eventually brought against 18 men. Seven were convicted. But the state of Mississippi never brought a single charge in the case – until January 6 of this year.

Chicago-area high school students uncovered new details while interviewing some of those involved. Public interest in the case was renewed. Mississippi prosecutors finally arrested Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and alleged Klansman. Killen is believed to have coordinated the plot to kidnap and murder the three young men. The story of the kidnapping and murders was told in the film, “Mississippi Burning.”

It’s hard to imagine a school project in any subject that could have a more dramatic impact than this one. It shows the power behind rich learning opportunities for kids. One of the Chicago students who worked on the project said, “It was a little saddening to know that it took 40 years for justice to start working.”

Sadly, the systematic teaching of history and the other social studies is in disarray. That’s true, not just in Vermont, but across the country. It’s ironic. The core premise for establishing the American public education system 200 years ago was to make sure American kids grew up to be knowledgeable, caring, involved citizens of our democracy.

In Vermont, social studies was one of the core academic subjects for which a comprehensive system of learning standards and assessments was to be developed. But while systems for English, math and science were put into place, Vermont educators gave up on social studies. They determined that we no longer have a collective sense of what our kids should know about their country, their government and their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

The result has been scattered efforts to “do something.” A half dozen bills have been introduced in this year’s Legislature to do everything from making sure kids read the Vermont constitution to dedicating a staff member of the Legislative Council to civics education. None of the efforts is close to the thoughtful design laid out in the 1990s for a comprehensive social studies system.

But there is the chance for Vermont students to compete in National History Day, thanks to the Vermont Historical Society. State history days are sponsored around the country, and winners go on to the national competition in Washington. The Vermont History Day, sponsored by the Historical Society, is April 9 in Barre.

Solid historical research can show what we are, as a country, as a state and as a people. That’s a powerful lesson for anyone to learn.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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