Red or Blue, Your State’s History Standards Probably Aren’t Great, a Review Says

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education advocacy organization that promotes charter schools, has released a report called The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.

This review concludes that a bipartisan mix of governments—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.—have state-level standards for American history and civics that excel in “content, rigor, clarity, and organization.” At the other end of the grade curve, the report gives its lowest marks to a red-blue mix of ten states: Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

I’ve read enough to say it’s an interesting document. I don’t share Fordham’s views on “school choice,” but so far, I don’t see any reason for that to affect my assessment of the report. I’m skeptical of the notion that it’s possible to assign a meaningful grade or linear ranking to a state’s standards, but then again, I know how disseminating a report through news media works.

My primary problem with its approach—again, so far—is that I don’t share the authors’ faith that specificity in state history standards is always a good thing. In this respect, I tend to agree with the criticism of the external advisor Meira Levinson (Harvard GSE), who comments on page 11 that “there is just too long a history of teachers’ treating packed knowledge standards as content to be marched through.” On the other hand, I tend to side with the authors, rather than Levinson, on (for example) the importance of chronological organization.

And I deeply appreciate other aspects of the report. For example, it advocates a strong emphasis on U.S. (and other) history throughout K-12 education, calling out state standards that relegate history courses to a small part of a student’s career.

The full document is almost 400 pages long, with assessments of the history and civics standards in every state, so it’s bound to include plenty of observations and claims that teachers of any background can argue over. What I appreciate most is that such debate is likely to be both possible and rewarding. This kind of review is difficult to do in a fair-minded way, especially at the present moment. There’s a lot of material here that seems good for thinking with.

You can read more about the review in Cory Turner’s story for NPR.

“Clear-Eyed, Nuanced, and Frank”

This morning, dozens of scholarly and educational organizations in the United States—including PEN America, the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Federation of Teachers—have signed a joint statement condemning broadly-worded bills that aim to curtail discussions of racism and history in schools and colleges.

First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.

Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History, June 16, 2021

“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”

I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”

If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.

I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)

However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)

Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”

I do have some things to say about that.

On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.

Continue reading ““Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country””

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

What Was the Electoral College For?

I have a short essay out now in Contingent Magazine. A couple of teachers have remarked that they have already found it useful for talking with high school students. (It’s probably short enough and glib enough to elicit a number of different kinds of responses.)

In the article, I consider the original purpose of that most mysterious of jury-rigged institutions, the electoral college—and I point out that, despite the stated intentions of some of its framers, the Constitution still does not guarantee Americans the right to vote for president at all.

“Fundamentally,” I argue, “the electoral college failed to work as designed because its design was contradictory in the first place.”

The whole article is available for free. Educators may also want to look around in the magazine’s curated collections of articles for classrooms. If you find them valuable, please consider supporting Contingent in its work.