By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
While I was on a dinner break last week, I went to a fast-food restaurant for a quick bite. Standing in line, I heard a teenager sitting behind me joking with his friends.
The teenager was not willing to trade seats with another friend. He said with a laugh, “I’m like that other black person who wouldn’t give up a seat … Condoleezza Rice.”
To his credit, he did correct himself and say the woman in question was actually Rosa Parks — that is, before he took a second guess at the answer and said, “Harriet Tubman.”
My only response was to look back at him and asked, “Did you really just confuse Condoleezza Rice with Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman?” I had never prepared for this exact situation, so I had no snappy comeback ready.
This wasn’t the greatest omen with Black History Month only a few days away, but it’s only one example of me running into high-school and/or college students lacking knowledge in social studies. There was the freshman girl I talked to during a Greyhound baseball game a few years ago, who looked at the program and asked me what “PR” stood for when listing a specific player’s hometown. I told her Puerto Rico without flinching, and she responded, “I don’t believe you.” Apparently, a lot of baseball players come from Portugal or there’s an “R” somewhere in Pennsylvania.
I could chalk it up to teachers not doing their jobs, but that would be irresponsible and inaccurate. The problem is that federal standards have required that teachers emphasize subjects like math and English. Those get emphasized, and social studies is effectively de-emphasized.
According to the No Child Left Behind requirements on the White House Web site, “These systems must be based on challenging state standards in reading and mathematics, annual testing for all students in grades 3-8, and annual statewide progress objectives ensuring that all groups of students reach proficiency within 12 years.”
I recently had a Q&A session with Texico teacher and Public Education Commission Chairman Dennis Roch. He told me school success has to be measurable, and the benchmarks the state has determined follow closely with No Child Left Behind standards.
Since these standards don’t include social studies, you can’t blame teachers or superintendents who squeeze social studies out of the curriculum. That’s what our tax dollars are telling them to do.
Let’s say you’re a Beatles cover band, and everybody who hires you likes the same four songs: “Hey Jude,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Eight Days a Week” and “Come Together.” Maybe the songs “Yesterday” or “Here, There and Everywhere” are great songs, but how likely are you going to practice a song your employers have determined you will never have to perform?
In the same way, our federal government has required that our students don’t have to learn about social studies, which in essence teaches about yesterday as well as events here, there and everywhere. The results are high school students who think our current secretary of state helped fuel the civil rights movement and college freshmen who don’t know where Puerto Rico is.
There are three lessons we need to learn from this. First, we’re in danger any time we give the federal government autonomy to determine what subjects are and aren’t important. Second, if history isn’t learned it will be repeated.
Finally, there’s nothing you can’t relate to a Beatles song.
Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He can be reached at 763-6991, ext. 313, or by e-mail: