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virginia - defining history...Video Excerpt (5:52)

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This video excerpt from "Testing Our Schools" takes a look inside the rarely seen process of drafting curriculum standards.

As educators in Virginia convene to hash out that state's history standards, the debate centers around which historic figures all students should be required to study. Is Robert E. Lee "essential" to Civil War history? What about Frederick Douglass? Jefferson Davis? Should there even be a list of such figures at all?

As the educators debate which names to include, various groups of citizens are lobbying the standards committee behind the scenes. A retired professor wants the standards to include information about the Armenian genocide, while a high-school history teacher says that students should have to study the ancient African kingdom of Mali.

"It's hard work to grapple with the fundamental issue of what's really important for all children to learn," says William Schmidt of Michigan State University. "We get hung up in the politics and then we leave our kids out of the equation, and it's for them we should be having this kind of serious dialogue."

Transcript of the Video Excerpt

NARRATOR: In Virginia, they are doing the hard work of deciding what all students should know, and in this state, with its rich and painful past, the hardest subject to decide may be history.

CHAIR: My question is, isn't Robert E. Lee's name essential to the event called the Civil War. I'm just speaking about the name Robert E. Lee.

THELMA: Well, we need to go back and clarify how we're going to deal with these names again, because if you mention him, and you say, "Well is he essential?" then of course Abraham Lincoln is essential, Jefferson Davis is essential, Ulysses S. Grant is essential, Frederick Douglass is essential, and you are going to get a long list of names again.

NARRATOR: This committee is grappling with the difficult task of deciding which historic figures all Virginia students should study. But the process broke down over names, specifically, whom to include and whom to omit.

MIKE: One measure of our meeting the diversity charge will be the names in the document. And in fact when I sat at the Fairfax public hearing, I heard public comment that was not favorable because there weren't enough names.

WOMAN: It is strongly recommended by our committee that the names stay in.

THELMA: We do not have to put those names in the standards, not before 12th grade.

CHAIR: In other words, you would want a document devoid of names completely?

MIKE: I am troubled, because it seems almost a discussion that's been unfolding for four months, and we seem not to be able to come up with a win-win situation. I wish someone would have an epiphany at this table right now [laughter], and come up with a win-win situation.

NARRATOR: No one did. Arguments over names continued without resolution.

CHAIR: With regard to a policy statement, I admit that so far it appears to be a little ragged, but I don't want us to get hung up on that right now. So we'll just proceed with the other questions.

MIKE: People feel, particularly about U.S. history, people feel very strongly, and they feel they know it. It is a very long process to get consensus about that which is regarded as essential understandings for K-12 students. It isn't obvious. The process requires reflection and deliberation. And, it's a consensus that's hard-fought, but once realized, I think, will result in standards that are well received.

NARRATOR: While the committee struggled over historic figures, behind the scenes groups of citizens were lobbying hard to add material to the state's history curriculum. Among the spectators at the meeting was Richard Kervorkian.

KERVORKIAN: We would like to see the genocide included in the state SOLs. The Armenian genocide is important because it was the model, it was the first genocide of the 20th century. And so the Armenian genocide has in a sense given birth to other genocides.

NARRATOR: Kervorkian, a painter and retired professor, is seen by some as a special interest. It's a term he does not refute.

KERVORKIAN: If you don't engage in supporting the people from whom you came, who will?

NARRATOR: Armenians were not the only ones seeking to add to the history schools would be required to teach.

PROPHETT: People studying the history of Virginia in grades 3 and 4 might get the impression that African Americans had no history before 1619, the beginning of slavery.

NARRATOR: Andrew Prophett, a high school history teacher, pushed the state to include a study of the ancient kingdom of Mali in the new history curriculum.

PROPHETT: Mali is essential because it happened. The people of Mali were a part of the international trade of gold and salt. The people of Mali were a part of the spread of Islam, and the exchange of scholars, the building of cities, and the exchange of knowledge.

SAXE: The kingdom of Mali has nothing to do with the beginning of this country, nothing, absolutely nothing to do.

NARRATOR: The proposal to add Mali provoked strong criticism from David Saxe, a professor of education at Penn State University who has reviewed history standards in 48 states.

SAXE: I think you're falling out of what's essential. So instead of looking at that, we look at Greece and Rome. And it's not that these are white people, or the history of Europeans. This is the history of ideas, the history of religion, law, and the very things that make this a great nation, the United States.

PROPHETT: I want all students to know that what we call progress, or the lack of progress, is shared by all people, and not any one particular people happened to have dropped out of the sky with slavery as their beginning around 1619 as the result of a Dutch Man-of-War landing off the coast of Virginia. That's not history.

NARRATOR: In the end, the committee decided to include Mali. The Armenian genocide was left out.

SCHMIDT: It's hard work to grapple with the fundamental issue of what's really important for all children to learn. We get hung up in the politics and then we leave our kids out of the equation, and it's for them we should be having this kind of serious dialogue.

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