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Classrooms and Culture Wars: Are Schools Teaching Children About the Same America?

April 20, 2023

The next battle in the nation’s culture wars is being waged over normally mundane processes: choosing K-12 academic standards. The struggle has shifted to the Midwest, where families and school officials in South Dakota and Minnesota are heading in opposite directions over classroom content, making one wonder if the classes on American history in these states are even teaching students about the same country.

Parents and school officials have wrestled over how to teach social studies and civics before, but today’s discussions over how to convey the meaning of America’s past in K-12 classrooms are especially fraught. In 2021, South Dakota officials began the process of renewing the state’s social studies standards, a process set to occur every seven years. Yet Gov. Kristi Noem and her department of education were not satisfied with the first drafts and appointed another commission in 2022 to start over. The draft released in 2021 was notably light on content and details, and with the mediocre average scores in civics and history in national comparisons, now is the time to be challenging students with more rigorous material.

The next round of drafts, under the new commission, were much improved. The standards correctly taught that slavery is evil and originated well before the founding of the U.S., and they did not say that racism defines our national identity. South Dakota officials deserve credit for maintaining America’s unique place in world history, not succumbing to the pressures of Critical Race Theory. The false claim that America is systemically racist and that racism is the defining feature of our history has been the topic of any number of headlines and public hearings over the last five years. Yet the new standards do not shy away from discussing freedom and opportunity as part of our national creed.

Slavery is mentioned 111 times in the standards, but the life of George Washington is also highlighted—including the fact that he was the only Founding Father to free slaves upon his death, some 64 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are all incorporated in the standards, which is remarkable since these men recently had their names stripped from public schools and monuments in other parts of the country because they did not meet social justice warriors’ radical standards. W.E.B. DuBois, Jesse Owens, Thurgood Marshall, and other notable black Americans are also included in the standards.

Despite our nation’s faults, students are taught to explain “the roles played by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the self-governing republic established by the Constitution, and the sacrifices of millions of Americans in creating the opportunity for all Americans to enjoy degrees of freedom, security, and prosperity unmatched in human history.” I testified before the commission last week and explained that these ideas give students a heritage they can share—the achievements and aspirations of our Founders that will help them understand and then pursue the American Dream.

Right next door in Minnesota, officials are going in the opposite direction. Policymakers are considering making ethnic studies a required course, prodding students to engage in “resistance.” In the state’s proposed standards, the American Dream is tossed in favor of “power and privilege” that comes from the “accumulation of wealth,” which can only oppress the poor—all ideas in line with the woke left. Students are called to use a “critical,” which means Marxist, perspective to “investigate” power. The standards introduce “decolonization,” one of critical theory’s radical ideas, and returns again and again to “resistance” movements throughout history.

States should include information about events, individuals, and communities unique to their geographic areas in their K-12 standards, along with the people and events from our national story. But the different standards in South Dakota and Minnesota seem to be describing states within two entirely different nations. Students are South Dakotans or Minnesotans, but they are also Americans. School officials have a responsibility to prepare them to participate in civil society. Give students a chance at the American Dream, not reasons to think this nation is irreparably fraught with division.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute and the Will Skillman Senior Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth (Bombardier Books, 2022).



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