Columns » John Brummett

Arkansas history: Study and weep


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State historians are outraged. They say instruction in Arkansas history, required by state law, warrants stand-alone, specific, intensive and thorough instruction.

Arkansas history can be taught properly only in the context of broader social studies. But that context probably can best grow out of a course in which Arkansas history gets central, not peripheral, attention.

The state’s school children need to be made acutely aware of their state’s mostly sad history. Maybe then they will come to embrace the long-overdue imperative not to repeat it.

Kids need to know that Arkansas was settled largely by people fleeing government and commerce. Young people need to know that, as a result, the state has lingered for 170 years as a backwater, capital-poor place.

By design, we’ve had dissipated and anemic government. We’ve installed a separate town and a substandard school district practically at every crossroad.

We were so especially poor during the Great Depression that, for fear of taxes, we amended our Constitution to make it nearly prohibitive to raise levies existing at the time. Still today, that perpetuates our absurdly microscopic tax rates on those who deplete our natural resources for profit.

Our young people need to know that, while we call ourselves the “Natural State,” we’ve built our economy on man’s alteration of nature and depletion thereof. We’ve dammed and dredged our rivers and drilled, mined and clear-cut our earth.

Children need to hear that Arkansas often has been on the wrong side of American history. That was particularly true when, at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, we showed the world the ugly face of white hatred of blacks.

Kids need to know that these racial divisions haunt us still. White people continue to flee black people, fashioning mostly segregated communities and concentrations of recycled poverty.

Our children need to know that once we had a great statewide newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette. They need to know that we killed that paper in favor of one that rewrote the history of Central High.

Until very recently, this surviving statewide paper typically said that the demagogic governor, Orval Faubus, called out the National Guard to keep peace. It essentially asserted that denying the nine brave black children’s entry to the school was a byproduct.

In real history, Faubus plainly abused the state militia to keep those black children from availing themselves of the federal law of the land. President Eisenhower didn’t send federal troops to stop the governor from keeping peace.

Children should be taught that a native son named Bill Clinton got elected president. His story can deliver the powerful and inspiring message that great altitudes can be achieved here through ability, aptitude, ambition and audacity.

But our youngsters also need to know that, despite assertions otherwise, this Clinton ascension provided no shortcut for the state to prosperity and cultural enlightenment.

Likewise, great success by athletic teams associated with the state’s land-grant university has added nothing to the well-being of the state. It’s merely glorified fleeting physical exploits by strapping adolescents and given us diseased obsessions.

Finally, our children need to be told of business successes in Arkansas — Stephens, Walton, Tyson, Hunt, Dillard, Murphy, Morgan, Ford. From that our children will be given the opportunity to understand, among other things, that the state’s pockets of great economic accomplishment have been home-grown — moving from the inside outward to the global economy, not the other way around.

Prosperity has not been lured by our offers of tax giveaways, nor by the general prostitution of ourselves to which we, by inferiority complex, are prone.

If Arkansas history is to be woven into anything, we might consider literature. The chapter on tragedies could cover those Greek, Shakespearean and Arkansan.


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