With the passing last week of attorney
Ralph G. Elliot, we lost a classic Connecticut dreamer and doer
who, among many achievements, crafted the most compelling case
ever made for teaching Connecticut history in our schools.
Ralph has been described as a champion of ethics and First Amendment
law and a man who loved newspapers and the printed word. But
above all he loved Connecticut. He had an insatiable appetite
for its stories and was one of our best storytellers.
I first met Ralph in 1987, when he was chairman of the United
States Constitution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut. Hartford's
Ancient Burying Ground was then in the midst of an expansive
At the Ancient Burying Ground
Association's 1987 annual meeting, Ralph presented a paper
with a title and message that need to be heard now more than
ever: "It's Time To Teach Connecticut
Ralph said, that until 1978, "state
law mandated that `United States, state and local history'
be taught in all public schools ... Now all that is required
is a course in what is vaguely called `social studies' and
a course in `United States history,' which is primarily a civics
course ... No longer are Connecticut youngsters afforded an
opportunity to learn about the richly textured history of their
own state, let alone of their hometowns."
Connecticut, he said, was
a microcosm of the United States that could "teach how
the nation was formed, grew, suffered and prospered. How much
more vividly the lessons of our country's past would come alive,
and be retained, if they could be related to people and places
within the ready ken and easy access of our students. ...
"Marrying the teaching
of American history to the history of Connecticut, and drawing
on the deep reservoirs of local and state written histories
and the resources of state and local historical societies,
our schools could make history come alive as it never can from
the tedious conning of arid texts."
Sadly, we're still not there, despite websites on Connecticut
history and despite substantial improvements in the quality of
what visitors experience when they visit Connecticut's historic
sites. (The best, most teacher-friendly Web-based content on
Connecticut history is found at www.connhistory.org. Produced
by Loomis Chaffee School history teacher Mark Williams, it provides
teacher-ready lesson plans tailored to the curriculum.)
The content is there. But until the General Assembly mandates
that Connecticut history be taught, it's not likely to happen.
Imagine if teachers and administrators were supported by law
in their desire to bring Connecticut into the classroom. It could
be a great catalyst for life-learning, citizenship and state
I am not fond of more regulations and mandates. But if we don't
teach our kids what Connecticut has done and why it matters,
Connecticut becomes just another place with a throwaway culture.
State Sen. Bill Finch put
it bluntly: "It is puzzling to
me why a civilized people wouldn't naturally study their own
history. It is sort of a weird form of subtle self-loathing not
to study your own past."
His passion is Frederick Law
Olmsted, a Connecticut original who transformed environmental
stewardship in America and whose Central Park in New York is
a national treasure. "We don't
teach about him," Finch notes, "or Israel Putnam, Harriet
Beecher Stowe, Prudence Crandall, P.T. Barnum, Igor Sikorsky,
William Gillette and all the other giants of U.S. history who
It wasn't always so. Noah Webster and Henry Barnard were early
education reformers who played major roles in elevating the quality
and character of American education. Both were richly imbued
with a sense of Connecticut's part in shaping American history
and were not ashamed to promote it. Barnard, who was the first
U.S. commissioner of education, believed in teaching geography
by having kids map their routes to school. For Barnard, public
education was the means of ensuring that the American people
remained capable of self-government. It didn't come easy. He
eventually invoked the authority of state government to force
each district to meet certain standards for buildings, teachers,
attendance and textbooks.
It's time to require Connecticut schools to teach about the
place that feeds them. Let's call it the Barnard-Elliot bill.
It's good for the heart, good for the soul and can't fail to
inspire our kids to know and perhaps love the little state that
Bill Hosley of Enfield is
a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and
former executive director of the Antiquarian & Landmarks
Society. He is author of "Colt: The Making of An American
Legend" [1996, University of Massachusetts Press].
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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