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 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 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 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 things like budgets, taxes and education.

State Rep. John Burt is known for annually hosting Hot Dog Day 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 stop these and 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 such as the state bean - black eyed peas. And six separate meals, including chicken fried steak. There were more than 70 pieces of legislation nationwide this year. Many were brought by students engaged in a civics lesson, to name everything from the official Alaska state hostess, Miss Alaska, to the official legendary creature in Wyoming, 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 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 the official historic instrument.

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, values it as a vital tool for getting young people involved and completely understands legislators who say these kinds of bills can be a real drag on time.

"What was a novel idea in the past," Alcox said, "what you're running into now is you see a lot of people who say, 'Why can't we write a bill, why can't we write a bill?'"

Alcox gets his kids involved in other ways: Inviting lawmakers or the governor to speak to a class or attending a speaking forum with past Supreme Court justices.

"You try to balance that 'let's have a teachable moment,' versus 'let's not try to tie up too much time,'" he said.

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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  • Eugene0808-YYCA
    9/17/2015 - 01:09 a.m.

    I think it is unnecessary to make multiple state symbols because it would cause a lot of controversy and it would be too much for people to know. The states have to reduce the number of state symbols they have so that it is balanced.
    Critical thinking challenge: How might limiting the number of state symbols make things better for everyone?
    Answer: Limiting the number of state symbols would make things better for everyone by reducing controversy, legislators can focus on more important things, and people don't have to know as much.

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