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Tell The State's Story To Students

March 6, 2005
By Bill Hosley

With the passing last week of attorney Ralph G. Elliot, we lost a classic Connecticut dreamer and doer who, among many achievements, crafted the most compelling case ever made for teaching Connecticut history in our schools.

Ralph has been described as a champion of ethics and First Amendment law and a man who loved newspapers and the printed word. But above all he loved Connecticut. He had an insatiable appetite for its stories and was one of our best storytellers.

I first met Ralph in 1987, when he was chairman of the United States Constitution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut. Hartford's Ancient Burying Ground was then in the midst of an expansive restoration.

At the Ancient Burying Ground Association's 1987 annual meeting, Ralph presented a paper with a title and message that need to be heard now more than ever: "It's Time To Teach Connecticut History Again."

Ralph said, that until 1978, "state law mandated that `United States, state and local history' be taught in all public schools ... Now all that is required is a course in what is vaguely called `social studies' and a course in `United States history,' which is primarily a civics course ... No longer are Connecticut youngsters afforded an opportunity to learn about the richly textured history of their own state, let alone of their hometowns."

Connecticut, he said, was a microcosm of the United States that could "teach how the nation was formed, grew, suffered and prospered. How much more vividly the lessons of our country's past would come alive, and be retained, if they could be related to people and places within the ready ken and easy access of our students. ...

"Marrying the teaching of American history to the history of Connecticut, and drawing on the deep reservoirs of local and state written histories and the resources of state and local historical societies, our schools could make history come alive as it never can from the tedious conning of arid texts."

Sadly, we're still not there, despite websites on Connecticut history and despite substantial improvements in the quality of what visitors experience when they visit Connecticut's historic sites. (The best, most teacher-friendly Web-based content on Connecticut history is found at www.connhistory.org. Produced by Loomis Chaffee School history teacher Mark Williams, it provides teacher-ready lesson plans tailored to the curriculum.)

The content is there. But until the General Assembly mandates that Connecticut history be taught, it's not likely to happen. Imagine if teachers and administrators were supported by law in their desire to bring Connecticut into the classroom. It could be a great catalyst for life-learning, citizenship and state pride.

I am not fond of more regulations and mandates. But if we don't teach our kids what Connecticut has done and why it matters, Connecticut becomes just another place with a throwaway culture.

State Sen. Bill Finch put it bluntly: "It is puzzling to me why a civilized people wouldn't naturally study their own history. It is sort of a weird form of subtle self-loathing not to study your own past."

His passion is Frederick Law Olmsted, a Connecticut original who transformed environmental stewardship in America and whose Central Park in New York is a national treasure. "We don't teach about him," Finch notes, "or Israel Putnam, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Prudence Crandall, P.T. Barnum, Igor Sikorsky, William Gillette and all the other giants of U.S. history who lived here."

It wasn't always so. Noah Webster and Henry Barnard were early education reformers who played major roles in elevating the quality and character of American education. Both were richly imbued with a sense of Connecticut's part in shaping American history and were not ashamed to promote it. Barnard, who was the first U.S. commissioner of education, believed in teaching geography by having kids map their routes to school. For Barnard, public education was the means of ensuring that the American people remained capable of self-government. It didn't come easy. He eventually invoked the authority of state government to force each district to meet certain standards for buildings, teachers, attendance and textbooks.

It's time to require Connecticut schools to teach about the place that feeds them. Let's call it the Barnard-Elliot bill. It's good for the heart, good for the soul and can't fail to inspire our kids to know and perhaps love the little state that could.

Bill Hosley of Enfield is a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and former executive director of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society. He is author of "Colt: The Making of An American Legend" [1996, University of Massachusetts Press].

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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