Labor history law stumps teachers (UPDATE)
When Ken Germanson began his lobbying effort in 1995, the union historian envisioned teachers spending days covering the history of organized labor.
Nearly 15 years later, Germanson has his law requiring labor history be taught in Wisconsin’s public schools. But there are no guarantees his vision will play out in classrooms.
“We were looking for a concrete mandate,” said Germanson, president emeritus of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, of the original effort behind the law.
He didn’t get it.
According to the law, social studies teachers in public schools must teach the history of organized labor and the collective bargaining process in America. But the law neither defines how much time should be spent on the subject, nor establishes any means of enforcement.
“It’s still a victory,” Germanson said. “I suppose if all we had was a mandate, it’d be up to us to monitor all these school districts and make sure they were teaching it.
“With what was passed, I think it’s still on us to work harder to motivate (the Department of Public Instruction) and teachers to get this taught.”
The motivation might not be there for teachers. Val Crofts, a history teacher at Milton High School, said labor history is part of his curriculum, and his American history class devotes about two weeks per year to the subject. He said he likely will stick to that plan.
Others are withholding commitment but considering their options.
“We kind of review American history through World War I, and we touch on a couple of workers’ strikes,” said Josh Hansen, a history teacher at Viroqua High School. “I’m sure there’s more that can be incorporated into some of what we do, but I’m still looking into it.”
The state Department of Public Instruction this year is expected to determine the content that should be put into history curriculums, and the Wisconsin Labor History Society is ready to help, Germanson said. In April, the group will hold a conference with speakers from labor unions, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and staff members of DPI.
“We’re not interested in pro forma teaching or telling people what they should and shouldn’t teach,” Germanson said. “But we have a number of resources teachers can use, and we feel we have an opportunity to get teachers interested in the subject.”
State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, wrote the bill and has been trying to get it passed since 2001. He said he envisioned more definition, but he’s satisfied with the result.
“I agreed with the compromise in the end,” he said. “Sometimes the legislative process has a way of changing bills, and that’s fine. We’re not asking for a whole unit on labor history or looking at a whole week’s worth of work. We just want them to cover it in some way.”
Germanson said he wants students to learn about the millworkers’ strike of 1898 in Oshkosh or the day in 1886 when seven striking workers were killed by state militia, prompting the eight-hour workday.
“And I would have no quarrel with a teacher who wanted to present another part of our history,” he said. “Certainly there’s been corruption, and that’s fine. That’s part of human history.”
Viroqua High School’s Hansen said he doesn’t know if he or other teachers will go into that much detail.
“We already have a lot of state standards to meet,” he said. “And with so many other things on our priority list, I don’t know that teachers will focus on a vague law.”