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Teachers Fight To Keep Prehistoric Humans In NC Social Studies Curriculum

Flickr / ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Bradshaw Rock Paintings in Australia are an example of Paleolithic Era art that might not be taught in North Carolina's new social studies curriculum.

Human evolution and prehistoric times would vanish from North Carolina’s social studies curriculum under new proposed standards. But some teachers are fighting to keep the Paleolithic Era alive in classrooms. 

Kenneth Dailey teaches sixth-grade social studies at Quail Hollow Middle School in south Charlotte. That means he’s responsible for introducing students to a time more than 10,000 years ago, when Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens shared the planet.

"The Paleolithic Era would be where people were more tribal," Dailey said. "They’re hunting and gathering, they’re nomadic, they’re moving around; you know, looking for food, looking for game."

It’s a period that figures creatively – if not always accurately – in pop culture. Think "The Flintstones," "Land of the Lost" and the Geico caveman.

Dailey said it’s important for students to think seriously about what we know – and don’t know – about an era that predates civilization. The fact that there are no historic documents to consult makes it a better learning opportunity, he said.

"I want them to have access to the scientific, the genetics, the geography, the archeology – I want them to have all of that," he said.

Dailey says he was shocked when he saw the state’s proposed social studies standards. They call for sixth-grade world history to start with the Neolithic Era – the time when humans had started farming and building civilizations. The Paleolithic Era is just … gone.

In July, the General Assembly ordered the state Board of Education to review and revise its K-12 social studies standards. Lawmakers mandated specific changes in high school, where students will have to pass classes in personal finance and civic literacy to graduate.

Educators and state Department of Public Instruction staff drafted changes for elementary and middle schools.

Evolution can be controversial. Some who embrace a biblical account of creation take issue with scientific theories. DPI hasn’t explained why the Paleolithic Era was eliminated, and the official in charge of the review didn’t answer when WFAE asked for an explanation.

Dailey said it makes no sense to just skip prehistory.

"If we did just start with ‘Here’s a civilization,’ I mean, almost inevitably the kids are going to say, 'What’s going on before that?'" he said. "They always ask for the evidence."

So, he said he did what he’s always telling his kids to do: He mustered his evidence and wrote an essay, which he sent to state officials and the local school board.

“The new standards as written represent a bias, intentional or otherwise, away from science and remove a valid and evidence-driven explanation for early modern man’s development of both self and civilization,” he wrote.

A statewide teachers’ group called Red4EdNCreviewed the standards and came to a similar conclusion. The group’s analysis says the new standards would deprive North Carolina children of important theories about the origin of humanity.

“We cannot understand modern humans and their behavior without understanding tribal humans and their culture,” the analysis says.

Lori Major Carlin, the state education official in charge of the social studies curriculum, says her team plans to address the Paleolithic Age in the next draft of the standards.

The state will take public comments on the first draft through Feb. 15. The second draft should go public sometime in March.

Dailey will be waiting eagerly. He said he doesn’t care so much about telling his students what to think about the birth of humanity … but he does want to teach them how to think about it.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.