A recent report, outlined by the Herald-Leader on Jan. 24, noted that “Kentucky is among the least educated of the country’s 50 states.”
According to the newspaper, the commonwealth is “ranked 47th for percentage of adults 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees, and 47th for percentage of adults with associate’s degrees or at least some college experience.”
Simply put, “Kentucky was among the five worst (states) in educational attainment,” the article said.
The report, of course, is not an indictment of residents’ intelligence or work ethic. Still, this ranking can hinder economic development by scaring off businesses that are looking for a highly educated workforce.
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Because the state’s largest cities, Lexington and Louisville, have a higher percentage of adults with college degrees, the focus of this ranking tends to fall upon Kentucky’s rural areas.
Kentuckians, however, are fortunate that many of these smaller communities have museums and local history organizations that can help fill this education gap by providing opportunities for both formal and informal learning.
These history museums — like the Highlands Museum in Ashland, the Gateway Museum Center in Maysville, the Bluegrass Heritage Museum in Winchester, the Simpson County Historical Society in Franklin, and the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County, to name a few — work to teach state and local history and help build citizens’ critical thinking skills.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, employers say critical thinking is a sought-after skill in short supply.
These museums also help preserve our shared experiences. They maintain local traditions and family stories and become a focal point for civic commemorations.
As the History Relevance Campaign, a national program that seeks to promote the understanding of history, states, “No place is a community until it has awareness of its history.”
A study by the American Alliance of Museums says that, nationwide, museums spend more than $2 billion each year on education. They train thousands of teachers and provide hands-on experiences to millions of students, providing a direct investment in America’s economic future.
Kentucky’s museums do their share, playing an important role in our smaller communities through exhibits, tours, educational programs, helping students with National History Day projects and more.
They lead discussions about contemporary issues and help us tackle future challenges. They offer learning opportunities for students who want to volunteer. By acting as cultural touchstones, these organizations improve our communities’ quality of life.
Perhaps most important, these museums and history organizations provide the spark that leads students to believe they can succeed in college. With their help, Kentucky can push more students into higher education and improve the state’s ranking.
The state’s college educational attainment levels may be low, but museums and local history organizations are improving our communities and engaging in important conversations.
In addition to teaching 21st century skills and expanding our knowledge base, they engage citizens in important discussions, make our communities vital places to live and work, and help local economic development through heritage tourism.
In many instances, these sites provide opportunities for learning in areas far from college campuses. Most important, these places help show all of us — regardless of what degree may be hanging on our wall — what it means to be a Kentuckian.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.