In 2019, Nebraska officials have taken steps to ensure guidelines for social studies education aren’t based on ancient history – relatively speaking, of course.
This spring, the Nebraska Legislature undertook the most significant revisions to the 1949 state law governing Americanism and civics education in decades. And this effort was followed by the Nebraska Board of Education’s approval of new social studies standards last week.
The revisions – only the second such update since the 1990s – made huge strides in a number of areas, including expanding historical perspectives, improving civic-readiness and standardizing topics at certain grade levels. Nebraska students will be better off on account of these changes, which take effect in the 2020-21 school year.
Our past isn’t always pretty. But teaching it honestly and making sure today’s applications of historical events are understood are vital to informing youth about their role – and Nebraska’s – in our shared story.
Too few Nebraskans know the stories of Chief Standing Bear’s trial, the Santee Exile or Will Brown’s lynching, for instance. Despite the impact of these events on Nebraska and beyond, knowledge of these topics is confined too much to certain geographic areas or populations within the state.
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As such, the decision to add more perspectives from more groups – especially those traditionally underrepresented in textbooks – will help provide a fuller picture of the impact of historical events. Involving advocacy groups in the process, as the Board of Education did, helps immensely.
Understanding the past is critical. But social studies must also prepare students for the future.
After all, we're talking about future leaders here. Accordingly, boosting the focus on civic engagement received a notable endorsement from former Secretary of State John Gale.
Educating youth about the democratic process, how government functions, the importance of voting, the rights guaranteed to all Americans – these developments should be embraced by all factions in our regrettably fragmented society.
A quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi -- but incorrectly phrased -- sums it up nicely: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Arming today’s children with the skills needed to be tomorrow’s leaders is the embodiment of a principle often repeated at high school graduations.
And clearly defining which skills will be taught in which grades marks a common-sense fix for students who move. Changing schools is enough of a disruption for students who can end up in social studies classes without their peers, based on different districts’ approaches. Standardizing the guidelines for each grade level guarantees more consistency.
These improvements raise the question, however, of why social studies standards aren’t revisited on a regular basis. Based on the long overdue fixes that have been approved, a more regular schedule would ensure these new guidelines – a big plus, to be sure – don’t become relics themselves one day.