Why Public Education Matters
David’s post about the Mon Tiki’s Floating Classroom Project is the kind of education-related stuff that I love to read about. There is so much written these days about the battle to save schools that people miss the fact that world-class educators are running successful programs all over the country, completely outside the walls of traditional school buildings. What I am talking about specifically are public education programs.
We all remember field trips when we were kids. If we were lucky a few of them touched us in memorable ways. For me it was a visit to Fort Boonesborough State Park here in Kentucky. That was when my love of history began to develop. It culminated with a short, but wonderful career as an archaeologist where I was introduced to the field of public education.
I was lucky in that my mentor was a disciple of Mark Leone and Paul Shackel, two of the most respected public archaeologists in the United States. Leone is the founder of the Archaeology in Annapolis project which revolutionized the way that archaeology was presented to the public. The idea was to make archaeology accessible to the average citizen. To involve the public and create stewards for Annapolis’ past. Thirty-two years later the program is a model for many others around the country including the program that I worked with during my time in the field. From the program’s website:
Over the years, Archaeology in Annapolis has run an annual field school in urban archaeology and has excavated over forty sites throughout the city’s historic district. Archaeology in Annapolis has continually structured these series of annual excavations around forms of public archaeology, through public tours of archaeological sites or interpretive exhibits that showcase archaeological excavations. We have attempted to promote an inclusive form of Annapolis’ history.
Like many other fields of research, archaeology has the potential for inter-disciplinary collaborations when undertaken thoughtfully. This dovetails perfectly with the goals of many modern educators who want to get the most bang for their buck when they take kids out of the classroom. If a teacher is convinced their kids will not just get a lesson in archaeology, but also lessons in math, history, technology and sociology, they will be much more willing to visit a site.
Paul Shackel is the leading voice for public archaeology in the United States. His book, Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology is required reading for all historical archaeology programs. Shackel’s vision is to use public archaeology to engage communities in discovering their own heritage. This is particularly true with under-represented minority communities. In the South this often means the study of formal slave sites (this was the specialty of the group I worked for). In other areas of the country American Indian populations are consulted often on projects which will appeal to their communities.
While archaeology holds a special place in my heart, the opportunity for public education extends into many other fields. As David is demonstrating with his program, students can be taken out of the classroom to engage in biology lessons, chemistry, physics, etc. The most important aspect of this approach is that it creates educators out of professionals that would not normally be charged with teaching children. In my experience the collaboration between teachers and public educators can be extremely rewarding. We spent a lot of time persuading them to trust us with their students and in almost every case the outcome was positive.
A big issue for me has always been the reality that teachers must be jack-of-all trades and too often they are teaching subjects outside their core expertise. This is not to take anything away from their abilities, but many academics and professionals have specific experience and knowledge that can benefit students greatly. These public education programs are an opportunity to do just that. That is why nearly every museum, historic site, and place of interest in the U.S. either has an established public education program or is working to get one off the ground. The truth is that people who are passionate about something want to share that passion. Public education is an excellent way to do that and accomplish something important in the process.
Toward a Critical Archaeology; Mark Leone, Paul Shackel, Parker B. Potter.
A Study of Archaeology; Walter Taylor