By Ben Velderman
ST. PAUL, Minn. – There’s a major controversy within the state of Minnesota over how K-12 students are taught U.S. history.
Minnesota’s top education officials are proposing new social studies standards that would no longer require students to learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., the War on Terror, the Soviet Union or the importance of patriotism.
Instead, students would be required to learn about America’s “institutional racism,” “the rise of big business,” and the problems posed by an “unregulated capitalist economy.”
In other words, some want to change the curriculum so history instructors teach children that the United States is a bad country with an evil past.
Minnesota’s education officials have spent the past two years “tweaking” the state’s K-12 social studies standards. The cyclical revision process is required by law and is meant to ensure that recent developments of historical importance get incorporated into the curriculum.
Minnesota Department of Education officials say the streamlined standards present “a balanced narrative of the American story” and emphasize critical thinking skills.
Critics say education officials have far exceeded their legal responsibility to revise the standards, and have instead made wholesale changes to the social studies curriculum, in order to present an “America the Ugly” version of history to students.
The standards battle is currently in the hands of Administrative Law Judge Barbara Neilson, who has until Friday to decide whether state education officials went too far with their revisions, or not.
If Neilson approves the changes, Minnesota teachers will have to come up with new lesson plans and school boards may have to purchase new textbooks and learning materials to meet the new standards.
That would mean spending a lot of money on materials that will force children to have a low opinion of their nation.
‘The big picture items’
At its heart, Minnesota’s standards showdown is really about the type of citizenship education America’s next generation of leaders will receive.
For example, will students be taught the benefits of a free market economy and how it fits with America’s founding principles? Or will they be trained to view capitalism as an economic system that enriches the few at the expense of the many?
“Standards are the big picture items that the state requires kids to know,” Karen Effrem, president of Education Liberty Watch, tells EAGnews. “It’s the skeleton from which districts need to develop curriculum and the teachers need to teach.”
Effrem explains that standards don’t have to be taught “verbatim” to students, but they do influence the types of questions students get asked on standardized tests. And that has a direct impact on types of textbooks school districts purchase and the lesson plans that teachers design.
Professor Chuck Chalberg, a critic of the new standards, explains how the radical approach to history would play out in Minnesota’s classrooms.
“Gone from the late 19th-century story is the role of ‘key inventions’ in improving American life,” Chalberg writes in a recent commentary. “In its place is an emphasis on the ‘intensified boom and bust cycles in an unregulated capitalist economy.’”
The way students study the Civil War would also change.
Under the current standards, “the causes, conduct and consequences of that war are central,” Chalberg writes. “In the tweaked standards, the Civil War is treated almost as an interlude lost in the midst of the larger 19th-century story of American expansion and the conquest of ‘indigenous and Mexican territory.’”
The post-Civil War period also gets a makeover, according to Chalberg. The current standards require students to learn how industrialization and urbanization changed American society and impacted immigration and race relations.
Those concepts are too ambiguous for Minnesota education officials, who re-worked the standards to emphasize a left-wing interpretation.
“The new standards stress the ‘rise of big business’ and the implementation of ‘institutional racism,’” Chalberg writes.
Other critics charge that the new standards fail to highlight that an individual’s inalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – come from their creator.
Beth Aune, the director of academic standards for Minnesota’s Department of Education, says those rights are included in the new standards, but it’s not the schools’ job to talk about the sources of those rights.
“That’s the purview of parents,” Aune tells the Star Tribune. “If they want to talk about God granting certain rights, they certainly can do that.”
If that’s the case, Minnesota teachers may as well leave the Declaration of Independence in the drawer.
‘This is the problem we now face’
While politics has always been a factor in such decisions, Democratic and Republican lawmakers set aside partisan differences to approve the current set of social studies standards in 2004.
Legislators may have felt they had agreed to a fairly neutral, straight-forward set of standards nine years ago, but a group of left-wing history professors from the University of Minnesota blasted the curriculum as too pro-America, notes Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John Fonte.
“They complained that the history/social studies standards for Minnesota presented American history too positively. … For these academics, the story of America primarily meant slavery for African Americans, genocide for American Indians, subjugation for women, xenophobia for immigrants, and exploitation for poor people. It looks like the Minnesota academics have finally achieved their goal,” Fonte writes in a recent National Review Online article.
Fonte is the director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute. He served as an advisor to Minnesota officials and lawmakers during the standards revision process in 2004 and 2013.
One of the other changes is that state lawmakers no longer have veto power over the standards revision process. Legislators can offer input over the process, but they can’t block it. That means Judge Neilson’s coming decision should be definitive, though opponents of the standards are expected to appeal an affirmative ruling.
Similar curriculum battles may soon begin appearing in other states, largely due to the Common Core standards being pushed by the Obama administration.
Minnesota state Sen. Sean Nienow, a Republican, believes Common Core standards are a backdoor attempt by the federal government to control what schools teach.
“ … [T]here are three federal laws that prohibit federal supervision, direction or control of school curricula,” writes Nienow in recent testimony against the new standards. “In my opinion, the (Common Core State Standards Initiative) violates these laws. It is my assertion that the ‘literacy standards’ in the (English Language Arts) are a Trojan horse to impose Common Core national standards into other subjects such as history and social studies, further aggravating the autonomy of the state.”
For example, it’s feared that the federal government will use its powers over the English curriculum to introduce vocabulary requirements that lead to certain ideas being incorporated into the social studies curriculum.
For Fonte, the major concern of the Minnesota standards squabble is how politicized the K-12 teaching profession has become.
“This is the state of the profession,” Fonte tells EAGnews. “(These left-wing views) are now orthodoxy. There has been a major shift over the past 20 to 30 years in how history is taught.”
He says most social studies teachers now have a negative view of Western civilization and the United States’ role in the world.
“This is how the teaching profession now thinks,” he says. “This is the problem we now face.”