Antisocial Studies | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Antisocial Studies 

Utah's history education seems to focus too much on itself

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After more than 16 years living in Utah, there are still plenty of things I don’t know about this state. My kids, on the other hand—by virtue of having gone through Utah’s public education system—will know plenty about Utah. More than enough, I’d dare say.

It never really occurred to me through most of my life to consider how much of my elementary education was spent learning about my state. I grew up in California, and I have no vivid memory of any year’s social-studies curriculum being spent exclusively on California history. I’m pretty sure I built a model of the San Juan Capistrano mission out of clay at some point, but beyond that, it’s all kind of a blur. And I can say with certainty that none of my middle-school social-studies learning involved California history.

For my Utah-raised kids, though, it’s a different story. When they reached fourth grade, they dug into Utah history, doing county reports and putting on a big school program that included Utah-patriotic songs. As a non-native Utahn, I kind of got into the spirit of the thing, taking family field trips to Box Elder County to see the Golden Spike monument and spending more time in Ogden than I ever had previously. Of course it’s good to know something about the place where you live. And it was a pretty interesting place, at that.

Then came middle school, and I was surprised to find that in seventh grade, they’d be devoting their social studies time to “Utah studies” yet again. Was it really that important to spend two full years of their K-8 classroom time on a single state? How obsessed did Utah need to be about pounding its own story into the heads of its schoolchildren?

Curious about how this approach compared to other U.S. states, I dove into the grade-by-grade social-studies curriculum standards of every single state’s department of education. You’d be amazed what you can learn about a state’s culture by looking at its social-studies standards—like, for example, which state includes explaining the United States’ role in the United Nations in its standards.

As it turns out, only 26 states identify in their standards devoting even one full year specifically to that state’s history—most commonly fourth grade—while the others fold their state history into a more comprehensive overview of U.S. history. And only three other states do what Utah does, reserving two full years for state history: Texas, South Carolina and Hawaii.

At first glance, Utah might seem to have little in common with those other three states. Sure, Hawaii also has a BYU campus, and Utahns could trade plenty of Obama jokes with our red-state friends from Texas and South Carolina. But there probably isn’t one single answer to why those four states spend so much time on their own history. Hawaii has the ethnic heritage of its native population to consider in teaching about the pre-U.S. Kingdom of Hawaii; South Carolina has its deeply ingrained rebel sensibility. And as for Texas—well, frankly it comes as something of a shock that they teach their kids about anything but Texas history.

Utah, of course, is built on a history of persecution, both real and perceived. It’s a place where people came to escape and be left alone, and where the U.S. government was rarely keen on letting that happen. It was built on the geographical and philosophical isolation of its 19th-century pioneer inhabitants. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the parents in this state—so many of them literal descendants of those pioneers, or at least steeped in their legend—want to work hard to indoctrinate the young into Utah’s “this is the place” significance.

But there’s always a trade-off. While Utah’s seventh-graders are spending their year on the diversity, economy and government of this one 85,000-square-mile chunk of land, their counterparts in the rest of the country are likely learning about the foundations of democracy in ancient Greece, or the Enlightenment in Europe, or an in-depth exploration of early American history. It’s an intellectual parochialism that turns Utah into the center of the universe, cheating students out of a broader perspective on the world’s cultures and their place in a more expansive picture of human social and cultural development. Maybe there’s an assumption that most of Utah’s kids will simply grow up and stay in Utah for their entire lives. If that doesn’t happen, though, those kids are now fully stocked with names, dates and topographical features that are of no particular use to them.

Utah—along with Texas, South Carolina and Hawaii—may have the best intentions in immersing students in the rich history of the place where they live right now. But there’s a sense of isolationism at work that doesn’t consider the skills and information they’ll need to function in the world outside those state borders. Without saying so in as many words, we’re telling our kids that they should consider themselves citizens of Utah first, and citizens of the United States and the world somewhere down the line of priorities.

Perhaps that’s perfectly in keeping with the kind of factionalized thinking that’s typical of contemporary society. It just might be nice if Utah’s social-studies classrooms weren’t inadvertently limiting kids’ exposure to a centuries-spanning, cultures-spanning human journey. To me, that feels like antisocial studies.

Twitter: @ScottRenshaw

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