Archaeology Education and the Political Landscape of American Schools

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Key-words: pre-college, schools, USA, public education


Education, a primary mode for transmitting society's knowledge, values and beliefs, is a highly political endeavour. To understand fully the place of archaeology within the framework of public education in the United States, some background in the broader political landscape and sanctioned curricula in American schools is necessary. This article examines some key aspects of these issues, including governmental control of education, the `history of history' in schools, and the appropriation of the past. It also looks at the status of archaeology education in the United States and considers an appropriate role for pre-college archaeology.

History, power and public education

History education in the United States is primarily the study of the written past. Defining history in such a narrow way has important consequences; authorship of the past is severely restricted, and the history of certain groups is Legitimized while others are devalued. Archaeology at the pre-college level (grades K-12, ages 5-18) exists only on the periphery of the written past. The people occupying the Americas for thousands of years before Columbus arrived get scant coverage in the first few pages of history textbooks, and thereafter appear only in relation to the history of the dominant culture. Reliance on written sources exclude perspectives from those who have traditionally been denied equal access to literacy skills, including ethnic minorities, women, and the working class.

The difficulty of identifying a place for archaeology in public education at the pre-college level is also tied to the uncomfortable position history holds within the broader curriculum. History as a school subject in the United States is generally unpopular, particularly with students (Lowen 1995). The reasons for history's low status are complex. It is first important to understand that history enters the pre-college classroom in two different ways: through standard history courses and through social studies (officially admitted to the curriculum in 1916 as an integrated study of social sciences and humanities). From the start there was a split between advocates of social studies and `traditional' historians, relating to a larger ideological rift over the purpose of schooling: to create self-actualising individuals or fulfil the needs of society? Members of the American Historical Association (AHA) argued for history instruction requiring students to examine original documents, consider diverse viewpoints and seek the causes leading to historical events within the social framework: in essence, to think like historians. In contrast, social studies was devised primarily to promote civic competence and meet the needs of society through education. History, within this framework, was not to be focused on the past. or social dynamics, but used to shape the future (Ravitch 1988). Such a difference in perception led to a divide between scholarly academic history and school history which exists to the present; the withdrawal of academic historians from K-12 has affected the way standard history courses are taught, as well as the history that is taught in the context of social studies.

Since the creation of social studies, both it and history have undergone alterations in content and pedagogy, and the importance placed on different school subjects has also changed. These changes not only reflect differing values and needs of society over time, but also link directly to the economy, and the needs of corporate America. Reading, writing and spelling are always important as building blocks of literacy and essential for entry into the job market. Beyond these basic literary skills, the value placed on different school subjects varies: at present, science, mathematics and technology are the focus of attention. History received greater prominence earlier in the century when America was involved in two world wars, but it was a history tailored to promote patriotism and national identity. …