California history yields unclaimed educational goldmine

In 1833, gold was discovered in Monterey County. This was 15 years before the California Gold Rush had even begun to shape the destiny of a state and a nation.

California is indeed one of the most fascinating states in the Union, and Monterey County, site of the state’s first capital, is arguably California’s most historical county. But is the value of the Golden State’s past being overlooked? Has the bear on the California flag faded into obscurity?

Perhaps it has for Carmel Unified’s middle and high schoolers, who spend little class time deepening their understanding of local history after elementary school. Perhaps fourth grade projects, like building missions, should be just the first step of many in molding informed California voters.

History Mission

The Carmel Mission, founded in 1770 by Junipero Serra, is one of 21 built under Spanish rule.

CHS social studies teacher Brent Silva, for one, sees promise in integrating state history into the CHS curriculum.

“Living in the state you’re in, it comes in very handy to know how things got to be the way they are there,” Silva reasons.

In the words of Captain Cooper’s fourth and fifth grade teacher Stephanie Lee, “As we study California history, we figure out how the past affects the present and how our present actions, as Californians, will affect the future.”

Of course, this philosophy doesn’t apply to just any one region. In Portland, Oregon, historian Alden Jencks is both a global traveler, who has taught English in Ivory Coast and Germany, and a local expert on his home state of Oregon, where he was once a guide on a tour boat on the Columbia River.

Pursuing his interest in distant places, Jencks earned a doctorate in European History. But as time passed, his perspective shifted, and he would increasingly ask himself, “What are you doing looking at these other places when there is so much that is so interesting and so relevant close at hand?”

And that is the simple beauty: State history should be taught because it is relevant. The challenge is finding where to implement the material.

“It would be tough,” Silva admits. “Students are already under so much strain with difficult classes.” Perhaps, he offers, a segment on California’s geography could be taught in freshman Global Studies, and a short unit on state history might be inserted into U.S. History courses.

Essential to this plan is early exposure. Although California state standards do delineate what aspects of the state’s history and geography must be emphasized in elementary school, it is the efforts of dedicated educators like Chuck Bancroft, a retired ranger for the California State Parks, that make the difference.

From 1991 to 2010, Bancroft worked with teachers to lead third and fourth graders in everything from birding at Point Lobos to telling Rumsien Native American stories and building tule huts. Through this program, Bancroft and his colleagues brought history to life.

History Whaler's Cabin

Constructed by 19th century Chinese fishermen, Whaler’s Cabin in Point Lobos is a reminder of the bygone days of Monterey Bay whaling.

“I remember the kids always loved going up the canyon for the Rumsien program, and, of course, eating the abalone,” Bancroft says. “I still run into students today that remember the fun they had.”

So what is the trick? According to Jencks, it’s “[zeroing] in on those special things…[that your area has] that [are] unique, that nobody else quite has.”

For our area, Jencks cites “the ongoing influence of Hispanic Americans in the state” and suggests a link between language study and history. But the beautiful thing is, in his words, that “there are just so many things that are special about California.”

Silva stresses the state’s founding and the relationship between current issues and issues the state has faced over the years (like geographic differences of north versus south in water dynamic and economic disparity), while Jencks romanticizes California’s Gold Rush, maritime history and Spanish and Mexican periods.

Unlike the extinct California Grizzly, the state’s history is very much an alive and adapting beast. You can see it lumbering through the Sierra foothills, sniffing in the abandoned gold mines. You can smell it on the sea breeze out of San Francisco, carrying tales of shipwreck and whaling.

And maybe you can even hear its padded paws in the streets of California’s first capital, moving south towards the hallways of Carmel High School.

-Michael Montgomery