State beans and state tartans! Too many symbols?
State beans and state tartans! Too many symbols? The Rhode Island legislature is considering making the American burying beetle the official state insect. At left is a red-tailed hawk (AP photo / Wikimedia Commons)
State beans and state tartans! Too many symbols?
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Whoopie pies, the K4s steam locomotive, the Carolina Shag and Harney silt loam. They all share a common bond: Each is a treasured member of what some say is an out-of-control state symbol club.

New Hampshire lawmakers recently shot down an effort by some fourth graders. They had proposed to name the red-tailed hawk the official state raptor. Publicly, the politicians got pasted as insensitive bullies. But some say the legislators have a point. After all, the state already has many official symbols. They include an official tree, bird, dog, animal, insect, amphibian, butterfly, saltwater fish, freshwater fish, rock, mineral, gem and yes, tartan.

Maybe, they argue, lawmakers' time would be better spent tackling other things. Like working on budgets, taxes and education.

State Rep. John Burt is known for annually hosting Hot Dog Day. It's held on the statehouse lawn. It is held to raise money for animal advocacy groups. During the hawk debate, he argued that lawmakers had more important work to do. He poked fun at himself in the process. He declared that soon the state would name an official hot dog.

"It was to get a point across. That if we have these bird bills, we have to ... tell the teacher, 'I know you want to mean well and you want to encourage your kids and you should. But you shouldn't be taking up our precious time,'" said Burt.

New Hampshire's list of official tokens is far from the lengthiest. Oklahoma has 45 state symbols. They include five separate state foods. For example, the state bean - black eyed peas. And there's six separate meals. One is chicken fried steak. There were more than 70 pieces of this type of legislation nationwide this year. Many were brought by students. They were engaged in a civics lesson. They wanted to name everything from the official Alaska state hostess, Miss Alaska, to the official legendary creature in Wyoming. It's called the jackalope. (Alas, the jackalope passed the House but died in the Senate.) Massachusetts has nine bills to name symbols this year, including the official tai chi form.

Whose idea was this, anyway? According to State Symbols USA, a "National Garland of Flowers" created for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair inspired states to adopt official floral emblems. It kicked off the trend of naming official stuff.

Controversy over the honorifics isn't new.

In Hawaii last year, lawmakers couldn't decide whether the ukulele or steel guitar. Which one should be the official state instrument? The measure provoked a chorus of harrumphs. It got snarled in legislative wrangling. In the end, the legislature passed the legislation this year. The ukulele became the official modern instrument. And the pahu drum will be the official historic instrument. Both won.

Dave Alcox has been a social studies teacher for 19 years. He is on the board of the New Hampshire Council for Social Studies. He teaches civic engagement. He values it as a vital tool for getting young people involved. But he completely understands legislators who say these kinds of bills can be a real drag on time.

Alcox gets his kids involved in other ways: They invite lawmakers or the governor to speak to a class. Or the students can attend a speaking forum with past Supreme Court justices.

New Hampshire's lawmakers are not the only ones to think that just maybe they ought to cool it on the symbols: This year, Missouri is considering a bill to limit the number of state symbols to 28.

Critical thinking challenge: How might limiting the number of state symbols make things better for everyone?

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