Policy Brief: History’s Lessons Remain as Valuable as Ever

Jason E. Kaplan

Oregon Historical Society director Kerry Tymchuk writes about what Oregonians can learn by reckoning honestly with the past.

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It would be understandable for people to think that organizations like the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) focus on the past. After all, our most public responsibility is to preserve and share the history of the people, places and events that have shaped Oregon since time immemorial. The fact of the matter, however, is that OHS is all about the future. By honestly educating individuals of all ages about history, we foster a better tomorrow.

These past 18 months have been historically challenging ones for all Oregonians — especially so for our K-12 students and teachers. In “normal” times, students on school field trips fill OHS’ museum, exploring our exhibitions and talking with volunteer docents, each other and their teachers about what they are learning. Since the COVID-19 pandemic prevented classrooms from visiting us in person, we have devoted much time and attention to delivering history directly to virtual classrooms. We’ve done this by offering K-12 curriculum, lesson plans, supplemental materials, and professional development workshops that help educators in the teaching of, and learning about, our complex history.

Teachers and students have also turned to us for guidance in understanding the past events that were precursors to this moment of national racial reckoning, as well as all the related debates over how to respond. I have said many times that OHS is not the chamber of commerce and we are not the tourism bureau. Our mission is not to pretend that Oregonians can take pride in all of the actions of those who came before us. Rather, our mission is to deliver thought-provoking exhibits, educational programs, and scholarship that present honest and factual history.

Our award-winning “Experience Oregon” exhibit forthrightly shares history that some would rather gloss over or forget — like the often violent mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, the fact that our original state constitution specifically prohibited Black people from living in Oregon and the decades of discrimination against those of Asian heritage, including incarcerating Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Our goal is not to make Oregonians feel guilty about past policies that created racial inequality. Rather, it is to help Oregonians understand how and why those policies were implemented, and how they continue to affect our state today.

Earlier this year, an individual spray-painted “No more history” on one of our outside walls. That sentiment couldn’t be more wrong. What our society and students need is more history. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I have long believed that history and civic education are receiving short shrift in our schools. Yes, the current emphasis on “STEM” — science, technology, engineering and math — is important in preparing young people to successfully participate in today’s workplaces, but those subjects are no more important than ensuring that the next generation has the knowledge and skills to successfully participate in American democracy.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that only 24% of high school seniors tested at or above proficiency level in civics, and that more than one-third of high school seniors lack even a basic grasp of the structure and operation of American government.

In response to these disturbing numbers, the Oregon State Legislature passed legislation this year that makes credits in civics a requirement for a high school diploma, beginning in 2026. OHS looks forward to continuing our outreach to educators as this requirement becomes part of school curricula.

Change comes from outside the classroom as well. Parents and guardians also need to ensure that the next generation has an appreciation for and understanding of our shared history. Join your kids on a trip to OHS — or, from the comfort of your living room, explore our many digital history websites, like The Oregon Encyclopedia. Engage them in discussions on current events. I could say it no better than President Ronald Reagan did in his 1989 farewell address: “All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen, I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”

There’s an old saying that “Education isn’t the filling of a bucket; it’s the lighting of a fire.” During this Olympic year, let us strive for teachers and museums and families to act as torchbearers in a never-ending relay — sparking and passing the flame of knowledge and curiosity from one generation to the next.

Kerry Tymchuk has served since 2011 as the Executive Director of the Oregon Historical Society.

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