A Bicentennial Chance to Spotlight Indiana

July 4, 2011

For release July 6 and threafter (695 words)

Before taking the oath of citizenship last week at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, 90 soon-to-be Hoosiers learned this fact from Judge Sarah Evans Barker. Five vice-presidents have come from Indiana: Schuyler Colfax, Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall and Dan Quayle. Only New York has produced more.

Our newest citizens know something most natives do not. And here are a few other little-known facts to suggest there’s more to Indiana than coal and cornfields: In 1825 in Madison County, for the first time under U.S. law, whites were sentenced to death and executed for the murder of Native Americans. Indiana’s Constitution of 1851 was one of the most progressive of its time. Indiana ranked second in the percentage of men of military age who served in the Union Army.

It’s time for Hoosiers to get to know ourselves. Heading toward our bicentennial in 2016, we have a once-in-a-century chance to educate our citizens, promote our strengths, come to terms with our weaknesses and hone our reputation. But it will take planning, financial investment and an agreement among policymakers about what the agenda is.

To date the Indiana General Assembly has not appropriated money to fund a bicentennial celebration. Later this summer, Gov. Mitch Daniels is expected to name a commission that will oversee the event relying heavily on state agency personnel as staff. He’ll also unveil a license plate to mark 200 years of Indiana statehood.

One potentially thorny issue: The commission will have to be representative and committed enough to start work now and continue through a gubernatorial election and transition year in the governor’s office in 2013. Also, Daniels needs to give the commission a specific charge so that it does not waste time deciding what to do. Considerable discussion has already occurred through a collaborative group led by State Archivist Jim Corridan that includes representatives from Indiana historic and cultural agencies, public and non-profit.

Among the group’s members is Hoosier historian James H. Madison, professor emeritus at Indiana University, who has put on paper recommendations for a multi-pronged agenda for the commission, including:

* Securing an address by the President of the United States in Indianapolis or Corydon, Indiana’s state capitol from 1816 to 1825.
* A major statewide initiative that will have enduring results such as the creation of our state park system in 1916.
* A variety of projects to bring Indiana history to life, including but not limited to development of innovative school curriculum materials and teacher workshops to enhance teaching and learning about Indiana.

The latter may be most difficult. The same goal was set during our centennial year but not achieved due to under-appreciation of local history. The typical student will study Indiana only once, in fourth grade, which is developmentally too early to present certain topics in a critical way. Meaty matters like Utopian socialism at New Harmony or urbanization and decline in Anderson and Kokomo are best presented as microcosms of the bigger American story, thus best taught after exposure to U.S. History in Eighth Grade or high school.

Although Indiana Studies is an approved elective for high school, few schools offer it because teachers aren’t trained and curriculum materials are inadequate. (Five teachers wrote an engaging curriculum that was published in 1988 but never widely circulated nor updated with graphics and technology.)

In 1980, the Indiana History Conference looked at “Indiana History in the Public Schools.” In a nutshell, it identified one problem – that of sustained commitment – as the biggest barrier to Indiana history education. Pamela J. Bennett, director of the Indiana Historical Bureau, took part in that symposium in 1980 and says that is still so.

“There is a growing concern that achieving the study of Indiana history at all levels should be a major priority for the coming bicentennial of statehood in 2016,” she said.

As always, tight budgets and competition among public and private agencies for resources stand in the way, but Bennett and others have hopes for unprecedented collaboration. “The challenge remains: Are we up to working together to bring solid Hoosier history to young people in our schools—and perhaps to their parents as well?”           

The clock is ticking.

Andreal Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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