Studying California missions teaches 4th graders how we got from there to here

jtarica@thetribunenews.comMay 3, 2014 

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. He writes the weekly Joetopia column on current events and life in SLO County. You may not always want to live in Joetopia, but you can still stop by, say "hi," and join the conversation. Reach him at .


So Joe Mathews would like our school kids to forgo writing reports on a unique era of California’s past that predates even the founding of this country so that they can study the fascinating 65-year history of a place like Long Beach State? Please.

Maybe he was just trying to stir up debate with Thursday’s commentary in The Tribune advocating that traditional fourth-grade mission reports be replaced by examinations of our public universities. But I’m sure I’m not alone in agreeing this is a hare-brained idea.

Just because the history is 80 or 100 years older than when these reports first began showing up in school curricula doesn’t mean it is any less significant. We need to continue attending to this heritage for future generations because it is so valuable and played such a major role in our state’s development.

While Mathews does acknowledge that the mission report tradition has many benefits, he seems to think that the focus has outlived its usefulness.

His comment that “the missions themselves have little everyday relevance to the economic, educational and cultural life of today’s California” is simply untrue.

Tell that to the city of San Luis Obispo, whose entire downtown is built around its crown jewel landmark. I’m sure places like Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano and all the rest would heartily agree that their cornerstone missions are of tremendous current value.

What is the tourist draw of the missions if not a major bit of economic relevance? What are the continuing avid religious uses of the missions if not substantial cultural relevance? As for educational relevance, the missions trace the foundational stories of how California was settled, why its cities and freeways are where they are, and how an immigrant population colonized territory occupied by native peoples in an effort to spread Christianity.

Nevertheless, Mathews thinks that this fourth-grade staple is due for an overhaul.

“The histories of our public universities are far longer, richer and more varied than those of the missions,” he says, “and touch on virtually every subject — from sports to science, pediatrics to politics — that could interest young minds.”

Wait, so how are those histories “far longer”? Last time I checked, UCSB wasn’t ranking among the nation’s top party schools back in the 1700s. This isn’t Harvard we’re talking about. And yes, the university histories are more varied, by their nature. But I’d rather our fourth-graders build a model of Mission San Miguel than write an essay on how many basketball games John Wooden won at UCLA.

True, California’s missions do not affect a vast number of people on a daily basis, and that is a shame. But the reports aren’t “mission trivia,’’ as Mathews suggests. Too many children may never get a full understanding of the mission era’s historical significance without this emphasis.

How many families on their own would dedicate that kind of in-depth attention to understanding such a vital part of our history? Not nearly enough, I’m sure. And absolutely nowhere near the number that do now.

The mission period played a critical role in California’s history, and these landmarks a living reminder of how we got from there to here as a people. The fourth-grade report curriculum immerses students in the experience, and that is not a lesson we should discard easily.


Joe Tarica is senior editor for The Tribune. Reach him at or on Twitter @joetarica.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service