This past year has been an important one, in many ways. I think weíve all become more serious, more aware that we are living in historic times. Iíve thought about what those of us involved in education should be doing. Education is our name for a basic human process of finding out what works and then passing that on to others.
One of the things that certainly works is inquiry, a topic Art has spoken about often. The important thing about America, I think, is that we are free to find out for ourselves what we want to know and what we need to know. For our institutions of self government to work, we need to gather information, weigh evidence, and come to conclusions. We need to move past endless arguments and to form our questions in ways that can be answered by research. We need to cultivate a respect for evidence. We need to practice examining situations from various perspectives and withholding judgment until we have good information. These are things that work.
But for them to work, we are dependent on those who came before us, who built libraries and organized archives, who photographed details and wrote articles, who took time and energy to create the resources we need to educate ourselves. Education is always a community effort.
One of the things that stands out for me is that every one of your research projects is also a service project: a way of giving something back to the community. One message the Montana Heritage Project communicates is that every student can contribute something of permanent worth to each townís historical record. This is tremendously exciting in a time when we are accustomed to schoolwork being done in a "play world" apart from the real world.
We are here today to accept your research products on behalf of the State of Montana. But I hope your work is also being preserved and made accessible in your own communities. That may be where it is most important down the road.
And this work is important. Some of you have written biographies of elders in your community, some of you have researched and written histories for community organizations, some of you worked together to nominate a building owned by a local church to the National Register of Historic Places, many of you added new research papers to the local library's archives, and others provided photo essays on a community history for local museums. In all these ways you have contributed to what sociologists call the "educational capacity" of your communities.
A townís educational capacity includes not just its schools but also its libraries and museums and its living experts Ė the elders who experienced the past first hand. The past is where we look for examples, both of what we want and what we donít want, where we look for innovations, and where we look for models. A town that doesnít preserve and use its past has few resources when it needs to meet a crisis or make decisions about its future.
Now itís your turn to add your contribution to that larger collection of work done over years. The more of this you do, the more its value grows and becomes clear. Communities that have a seven-year collection of local historical materials, including maps and photographs and artifacts and texts, have an educational resource of tremendous value.
What your school and community will use this resource for, what it will choose to study and preserve, depends on what questions you are asking. And thatís mostly your decision. People are always, moment by moment, asking and answering questions. Itís what people do. These might be small questions, like "Why did David comb his hair that way?" They might be trivial questions, like "What should I wear to the game today?"
But sometimes they are big questions and important questions. What the future holds for you and for your towns depends to a great extent on what questions you are asking, and the quality of the information you find to help you create answers. You arenít likely to get important answers until you have asked important questions.
We donít know what problems people will face in the future or what questions they will ask. Our job today is to ask the truly important questions that we face here and now. If we do that and work at finding answers, then we have done our part. Many of you have done that, and your work will only become more valuable with time.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if students fifty years from now could begin their senior research projects by browsing the archives, looking at the hundreds of research projects on the local community, examining some of the thousands of historical photographs, maps, and other documents that someone had preserved and labeled?
Most of our historical legacy does not exist in museums. Most of it exists in family records, boxes of heirlooms, prized letters and diaries, and family photo albums. This uncollected and uncatalogued information is the real frontier of historical research, and you have been on the cutting edge of it.
I would like to thank again Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne for their vision in creating the Montana Heritage Project.
And I would like to thank you teachers who have gone beyond classroom teaching to provide real community leadership, creating materials, inventing strategies, forging relationships. Itís far easier to assign the next chapter in a text than it is to coordinate large, complicated educational projects. I know how hard this is, and we all owe you a debt of gratitude.
And I would especially like to thank you young people. You give us all