Teaching New Jersey History

One of the things that I was particularly interested in during the twenty-eight years I was on the staff of the New Jersey Historical Commission was how, if at all, New Jersey history was taught in the New Jersey public schools. I personally feel that this is one of the most important roles that the New Jersey Historical Commission has and should continue to serve in state government. Not only did the Historical Commission produce a significant body of books, pamphlets, radio and television documentaries, and websites as well as provide grants for research, historical societies, and teachers, but I personally was involved, along with such people as Alan Lucibello of the Montville School District and John Dougherty of the New Jersey Department of Education, in the writing of the 2004 New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards in Social Studies. There were numerous disagreements about what should be included and how detailed they should be. The 2004 standards were far from perfect, and they were revised several times.

I recently looked at the current New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards in Social Studies, and I was pleased to see four things about them that we fought for at the time:

(1) The current standards are organized around chronological history. There was considerable debate about whether the standards should be organized chronologically or topically. The teachers who were members of the New Jersey Council for History Education felt strongly their students didn’t have an idea of when certain historical events occurred in relation to other events.

(2) The current standards emphasize critical thinking even in grades K-4. In 2004, New Jersey history was taught exclusively in the 4th grade as a series of trivia questions (e.g. What is the state bird? the state flower? etc.) Many of us felt that even young students are capable of critical thinking in the areas of geography, civics, and history (e.g., seeing the relationship between a simply written, historical text and a map).

(3) The current standards emphasize World History, not just Western Civilization. There was a lively debate over whether there was enough time in the school day or even year to cover World History as well as (not instead of) European History. However, today more than ever we live in a global economy and problems are no longer (if ever) confined to Europe. We no longer can afford to raise a generation of students who don’t even know where in the world are Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

(4) The standards incorporate some New Jersey history into grades 5-8 as well as 9-12. For too many years (and too many states) state history is only taught in the elementary or middle schools. As with math and science, each level involves a greater sophistication of critical thinking and writing.

The new standards are written at a more general level than the 2004 standards, which is probably a good thing. They do include such New Jersey reference as: New Jersey’s first state governor William Livingston; New Jersey’s integral role in the American Revolution; the abolitionist, temperance, and reform movements in New Jersey; New Jersey’s role in the underground railroad; New Jersey’s 1776, 1844, and 1947 state constitutions; innovation, entrepreneurship, and industrialization in New Jersey; the 1913 Paterson silk strike; Lucy Stone and Alice Paul; Seabrook Farms; and Albert Einstein.

I would like to suggest ten specifics topics that should be added within the general framework of new the standards:

(1) The colonies of New Netherland and New Sweden. Not only do these show that New Jersey history does not begin with the British colonies, but these were the first pluralistic societies in colonial America which set the precedent for pluralism in the Middle Colonies and in America generally.

(2)  Teedyuscung, the “King of the Delaware,” who was born in Crosswicks. We tend to study only specific white men and women and not American Indian leaders like the Delaware sachem Teedyuscung. While his name may not be familiar to many, it should be. He was a great orator and advocate for the land rights of Native Americans.

(3) Alexander Hamilton and the SUM in Paterson. The Great Falls National Historic Park is now recognized as a New Jersey historic park of national significance, because it embodies Alexander Hamilton’s vision for an industrial and urban America.

(4) The Still family and the Underground Railroad. Charity Still’s personal history of her two escapes from slavery and later reunion with Peter, one of her sons who was left behind, is one of the great family histories in New Jersey. Another of her sons, William Still, wrote one of the most important works that includes case studies of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad.

(5) Woodrow Wilson as the Progressive governor of New Jersey.  Before he was president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson was governor of New Jersey. During his administration, New Jersey passed such reforms as establishing the Public Utilities Commission, workers’ compensation, and primary elections.

(6) Frank Hague and the rise to political power of the Irish. As mayor of Jersey City between 1917 to 1947, Frank Hague dominated New Jersey politics in the first half of the twentieth century. He represents the rise of immigrants (especially the Irish) to power in New Jersey politics.

(9) The Abbott v. Burke and Mt. Laurel decisions of the N.J. Supreme Court. The 1975 Mt. Laurel decision declared unconstitutional under the 1947 New Jersey Constitution exclusionary zoning in New Jersey’s suburbs. The 1985 Abbott v. Burke decision declared New Jersey’s formula for funding schools unconstitutional under the 1947 constitution because of the disparity in funding between urban and suburban school districts. Both of these decisions are of national importance.

Finally, I have several concerns that still loom over the teaching of New Jersey History in the public schools:

(1) The emphasis under both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top on standardized tests in Math, Science, and Reading effectively has removed Social Studies from the core curriculum. There are three problems with this: (a) if it’s not tested, it’s not taken seriously, (2) standardized tests are the not the best way to assess critical thinking, and (3) education should not be solely about job training. As Thomas Jefferson has said: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

(2) The continued emphasis by both university admission offices and the public schools on so-called Advanced Placement courses, which often substitute for the second year of the required two-year course of study of American History at the high school level. They are geared to a standardized test that does not emphasize the critical thinking, analysis of primary sources, and writing of persuasive essays that are the very reason for studying history. Furthermore, they are not taught by college professors. In fact, a teacher in New Jersey and elsewhere can be certified to teach social studies in the high schools without even having been a history major in college. College-level courses should be taught at colleges or community colleges.

Here’s hoping that the current observance of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary reminds  residents and elected officials of the importance of state-funded, public-history agencies like the New Jersey Historical Commission to the quality of life and self-identity of the State of New Jersey.

by David Steven Cohen

David S. Cohen holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. He was an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University in Newark for nine years, before coming to the New Jersey Historical Commission, where he was a research associate for twenty-eight years, until his retirement in 2007. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.