Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Annual Meeting Report: Bright spots in academia during a dark period for Iowa history studies

The Iowa History Center at Simpson College and a newly-forged publishing arrangement with University of Iowa Press are helping to reverse disappointing trends in academia for state historical studies, William B. Friedricks (left) told members of the Lucas County Historical Society during their annual meeting April 19.

Friedricks, Anna D. Hunt professor of history at Simpson, is founding director of the Iowa History Center and also has been named editor of a new University of Iowa Press series entitled “Iowa and the Midwest Experience.”

A native Californian (B.A. University of California at San Diego; M.A. and Ph.D. University of Southern California), Friedricks was mentored at USC by Frank Mitchell, now retired in his native Lucas County and an LCHS board member. Friedricks has researched and written extensively on Iowa history during his 17 years at Simpson and is author of a history of The Des Moines Register & Tribune Co. and biographies of John Ruan and Frederick M. Hubbell.

Among danger signs for the field cited by Friedricks is a steady decline in the attention paid to Iowa history in the state’s public schools, private colleges and regent universities. In most public schools, the state history curriculum has been reduced to a few hours and only six of Iowa’s private colleges offer Iowa history as an academic subject, Friedricks said.

He singled out Iowa State University as an example of declining academic interest. There, he said, Iowa State University Press, once the premier publisher of Iowa history, was sold in 2000 to a private firm, Blackwell Science, and Blackwell eliminated the state history division.

In addition, Friedricks said, ISU has not replaced with a faculty member similarly assigned Prof. Dorothy A. Schwieder, who retired in 2001 and was perhaps the state’s top Iowa history academic.

At the State Historical Society of Iowa, according to Friedricks, staff and leadership cuts have curtailed its programs. House at the state’s premier research libraries, operated by the society in Des Moines and Iowa City, have been cut to three afternoon hours a week Tuesdays-Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays.

The Iowa History Center at Simpson was created, Friedricks said, in an attempt to reverse a disappointing trend.

Among its accomplishments is the agreement with University of Iowa Press to broaden its field of interest to include Iowa history, including the “Iowa and the Midwest Experience” series. U of I Press already has published several history-related titles, including a reprint of Schwieder’s classic, “Iowa: The Middle Land,” generally recognized as the best of the contemporary Iowa histories available.

In addition, a lively speakers series funded in part by Humanities Iowa has been launched and a program initiated at Simpson to involve students in the collection of living history has begun.

Among other state goals of the center are promotion of Iowa history in the state’s schools and communities by providing a fund to award competitive grants to kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers who develop innovative approaches to introducing Iowa history in their classrooms; Encouraging the study and research of Iowa history by funding a prize for the best master’s thesis in Iowa history, encouraging students from Iowa’s three universities to complete work in Iowa history, placing Simpson College students in internships with various state historical associations and funding faculty research in Iowa history.

A dynamic speaker, Friedricks engaged his audience April 19 by opening with a quiz, of sorts --- distributing copies of a cartoon containing likenesses of dozens of significant Iowans drawn by Brian Duffy, fired as a cost-cutting measure in 2008 by The Des Moines Register, the newspaper Iowa formerly depended upon. Lively discussion followed and LCHS members were able to identify all but a few of the most obscure characters.


LCHS President Bill Marner convened a brief business meeting that followed Friedricks’ presentation. The primary matter of business was electing society officers for 2010-11 and three directors to serve three-year terms. Ordinarily four directors are elected, but Marner, retiring as president, automatically moved into one of the available director slots as provided for in society bylaws. He will serve the same number of years on the board as he served as president.

Frank D. Myers was elected to succeed Marner as president and three incumbent officers were re-elected to their positions --- Bob Curtis as vice-president, Gene Egeland as treasurer and Lucinda Burkhalter as secretary.

During the board election, Cliff Brewer (new to the board) and Ron Christensen and Warren Wallace (incumbents) were elected. Incumbent board members Norlin Nielsen and Ruth Frazier did not seek additional terms.

Following adjournment, homemade pie was served.

--- By Frank D. Myers


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