Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Tennessee Social Studies Standards and Tennessee History

Several of my colleagues in social studies were appalled when the Tennessee Department of Education removed Tennessee History as a one-semester course in the 7th grade. The state education officials assured us that Tennessee History standards would be incorporated into the American History standards. We warned that the Tennessee History standards would be increasingly ignored and finally removed from the American History curriculum because of the emphasis on testing in the American History curriculum. Our predictions are rapidly coming true.

I have been following the current debate over the revised American history standards, which includes the removal of several Tennessee History standards, including the study of events and individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement. How can anyone justify the removal of standards related to Alex Haley and his saga Roots? I have seen first-hand how the story of Alex Haley inspired African-American students to search for their own roots. One of my students traced her family to a particular plantation. She knew the lack of formal records for slaves would mean she could never go back beyond this point. I will never forget her excitement when she was able to trace her lineage back to this specific plantation, even though her ancestors were slaves.

One of my chief fears is that the removal of these Tennessee standards will weaken our students’ sense of place. In 1971 Dr. Jennifer Cross presented a paper What is Sense of Place? at a conference at Western State College. She identified several relationships to place, which included the following:

  • Spiritual – emotional, intangible 
    • feeling a sense of belonging 
  • Ideological – moral and ethical
    • living according to moral guidelines for human responsibility to place, guidelines may be religious or secular 
  • Narrative – mythical
    • learning about place through stories, including: creation myths, family histories, political accounts, and fictional accounts.

In my Sociology of Education class, I often quiz the native Tennessee students about their knowledge of Tennessee history. I have never had a student that knew that East Tennessee was the home of a strong abolitionist movement. The nation’s first abolitionist newspaper, The Emancipator, was published near Jonesboro by Elihu Embree, a Quaker and abolitionist. Consistently, more than 90% are unaware that in June 1861, 30 counties in East Tennessee held a convention in Greeneville to explore the possibility of Eastern Tennessee breaking away from the rest of Tennessee and forming its own state. They do not know that Andrew Johnson was the Vice Presidential candidate on the ticket with Abraham Lincoln in 1864 because he was a Southern unionist. Some of the young men who drive around with the Rebel flag on their pickup trucks should be told that the majority of rural East Tennesseans were pro-Union, and not Rebels. 

Additionally, few have no more than a rudimentary knowledge of local history. They do not know that Friendsville, which is located a few miles from the Maryville College campus, was originally a Quaker community. They are not aware of the rich oral history of Friendsville as a key player in the Underground Railroad, which runaway slaves used in their escape north to freedom. They do not know that Quakers took a bold stand against slavery in the United States. The southern government closed Maryville College after Tennessee seceded from the Union, and they referred to Maryville College as “that damn Yankee College.” Neither are the students aware that Maryville College was the first college in Tennessee to grant a college degree to a woman, in 1875.

If our schools do not provide this sense of place to our children, we are left with the stereotypes of native Tennesseans imposed on us by others. Just go to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and you will get the stereotype: Traditional Tennesseans are drunkards, lazy, shiftless, and uneducated, whose children often go barefoot and have few ambitions. I am a native East Tennessean, and these words do not describe me, nor thousands of other East Tennesseans. If schools do not teach the truth and provide our children with a positive and healthy sense of place, who will teach them?

Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson

**Photo credit-Cara Alexander

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