by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
With news that a few socialist punks toppled a Confederate memorial statue in Durham, I thought it would be a good time to review what N.C. public school students learn about monuments and statues.
The social studies standards for fourth grade, which introduce students to the history, geography, and people of North Carolina, require teachers to “Explain why important buildings, statues, monuments, and place names are associated with the state’s history.” Aside from a high school elective course on civil liberties and civil rights, no other grade or course is required to include discussions of monuments and statues. Certainly, teachers in other grades and courses may choose to do so if it helps them to meets state standards in their respective grades and subjects.
The two examples cited in the state’s social studies standards are the statue of the Confederate soldier outside the Old State Capitol building in Raleigh and the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk. The standards say that the Confederate statue is significant because “it represents the confederacy and honors the lives of the southern men who fought for the Confederacy.” The Wright Brothers National Memorial is noteworthy because it “serves to acknowledge where the ‘first flight’ is believed to have taken place and honor the innovation of the first successful aircraft built by Orville and Wilbur Wright.” I suspect that most teachers use the above examples, mostly because the social studies standards document provides links to helpful resources and lessons for each.
But teachers are not obligated to use the landmarks mentioned in the standards. For example, it is possible that some teachers choose to highlight the statue that was vandalized in Durham this week. This flexibility allows teachers to select monuments and statues located in their communities. There is, however, a major drawback to this arrangment. In most cases, the public does not have access to the content of teachers’ lessons, activities, or materials. So, it is impossible to know what teachers are teaching about the incident in Durham or North Carolina’s monuments and statues generally.
Moreover, the state does not report the results of fourth-grade social studies exams because they are used exclusively for teacher evaluation. The released test for fourth-grade social studies does not include a reference to a monument or statue. Instead, the tests ask students to read a passage about the Nash-Hooper House in Hillsborough and select the answer that best summarizes its historical significance. A whopping 71 percent of the students selected the correct answer.
Even so, it may be difficult for fourth graders, among others, to fully understand why someone would want to deface or wreck a monument or statue. When asked about the toppling of the statue in Durham, my fifth grader couldn’t quite grasp why a group of angry socialists would choose to engage in criminal activity to destroy it. He saw the statue primarily as a physical object, not necessarily a symbol of ideologies and values. For most children, a statue is a statue. For most adults, a statue is a statement.