Why Students Should Consider Taking Pacific Northwest History

Pacific Northwest History has a strange past in the State of Washington. Many think that the only reason to take a Pacific Northwest History course is to become a teacher. There is a reason for that. For decades, the state required that all education majors take it in order to get their degree and be certified to teach in Washington. Even kindergarten teachers needed it.

The crush was huge at teachers colleges like Central. Dr. Kent Richards, History Professor Emeritus, recalled teaching sections of 300 people each quarter in McConnell Auditorium. Needless to say, lots of the students forced to take Pacific Northwest History hated the requirement. Under this pressure, eventually, the state relented. The days of massive Pacific Northwest History classes are firmly in the past, but they have left an unfortunate negative legacy.

Now, Pacific Northwest History is only required for Social Science Secondary Education teachers and those wanting to teach humanities in middle schools/junior high schools, so, if you want to become a high school history teacher in Washington, you take it. If not, you don’t. As a result, many other students who could benefit from knowing about their region have decided that since they won’t teach there is no reason to learn about the Pacific Northwest.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many good reasons to learn about the Pacific Northwest that go far beyond teaching it. Regional history is important and relevant to any understanding of national history. It is also an exciting tale that is very relevant to anyone planning to live and thrive in this unique region.

The first reason to study this narrative goes back to that old saying, “know yourself.” We can only truly know ourselves if we understand the environment in which we live and how we have affected that environment. The land, the resources, the history and the possibilities for the future are crucial to understand because, together, all of these factors contribute to the full meaning of this place. Without an understanding of how we arrived at this juncture, we are limited in assessing the possibilities when we want to create a realistic vision for the future.

The next reason to study Pacific Northwest History involves the idea of the case study–understand at the micro level in order to understand the macro level. The Northwest is both different and like the rest of the United States. Major trends that affect the entire country play out here in the Pacific Northwest. It provides a case study for understanding the nation.

If you want to deepen your understanding of environmentalism, start here and see how it has affected this region. Then apply your understanding nationally. The same goes with other movements. For example, Progressivism changed the country in the early 20th century. It profoundly affected this region, so studying the Pacific Northwest can show important trends applicable to the nation as a whole.

Third, Pacific Northwest History provides a unique window into something that is very hard to see. It shows how community is created in both the towns and the region as a whole. There are few histories that can trace how people came into a land, affected its original inhabitants, and created towns, economies and institutions from scratch. In this respect, Pacific Northwest History provides an essential tool for understanding such diverse fields as planning, economic development and community revitalization.

Pacific Northwest History is more than just a required class for budding teachers. It is not just a narrative featuring descriptions of wagons on the Oregon Trail. Instead, it is a vehicle to forming a better understanding of our region, for seeing how that region fits into the larger framework of the nation, and for understanding ourselves as we work for a better future for our families and friends.

Ken Munsell

CWU Department of History


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