Our schools need patriotic American history now more than ever
The principles and values of "patriotic" American history

Reclaiming American history: standards and curriculum


Tomorrow is July 4th, America's Independence Day, traditionally a celebration of the great blessings of freedom and prosperity our nation enjoys. As I wrote earlier this week, Independence Day 2020 comes under a cloud of deep civil and social unrest as the United States struggles mightily under the weight of a global pandemic and widespread urban violence. 

I joined the voices of millions who raised alarm at the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It was a needed moment to once again review the many racial disparities in America, reflect on their sources, and seek out common sense policy solutions that can help us progress as a united people. But peaceful protests soon decayed into violence, looting, and anarchist takeovers of public spaces. Leaders of the U.S. Senate proposed the most sweeping federal police reform bill in American history, only to see their effort go nowhere, while in the streets of American cities and towns mobs tore down statues of...George Washington. It has become clear that a fair number of people do not want to see us move forward as a nation, and that in fact, they view America itself as the problem.

It is not my intent to argue why this is a deeply flawed and dangerous point of view. I'll leave that argument to others. I will simply state my own position, which I believe is shared by millions of Americans of all skin colors, that despite the deep flaws and social sins of our past, despite the work that still needs to be done, the United States has made incredible progress in terms of creating equal opportunities for every citizen, and remains the greatest nation in the world. It is the values and political institutions of America, which were founded, fought over, and defended by brilliant and courageous - if deeply human - people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant, that should be honored and defended.

My own sphere of expertise is education and education policy. As I argued earlier this week, it is within our schools where we must meet the challenge of helping future generations understand our complex national past, develop the citizenship skills to help us keep striving toward our national ideals, and appreciate - even revere - the founding principles, the history, and institutions of the United States. In this on-going series of posts I'd like to reflect on how to best accomplish this, including through education standards and curriculum, everyday school practices, and the role of local communities and boards of education.

Sadly, to insist that our schools teach an American history that is both "critical and patriotic," we will likely make them once again battle grounds in the culture war that is raging in our media and in the streets of our cities. But our schools are already battle grounds for these kinds of disputes. The question is not whether we are to fight in them, but how. Otherwise, we will cede our schools, as we have unconsciously been doing so for decades, to powerful forces of anti-Americanism that have led us up to this seemingly intractable place as a country.

The first place to start this discussion is on the condition of state standards for the teaching of American history. This is a topic I've been deeply immersed in. I am a former social studies teacher and hold a Master's degree in history. As a member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019, I chaired the KBE Curriculum, Instruction, and Assesment Committee while the Department of Education led the process of developing new social studies standards as laid out by the General Assembly in 2017 legislation.

The first thing to say is that the new Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies are vastly superior to the vague, nearly content-free, standards that preceded them for many years. I made this argument against sharp criticisms of the standards from my colleague Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute (where I also sit on the Board of Scholars), and others who were especially concerned about the lack of content specificity or presentation of certain topics. Several of my fellow board members also expressed criticisms of the standards but, probably because of my passionate defense of both the process by which the standards were developed and their outcome, they were eventually approved by a unanimous KBE vote.

You can read my complete defense of the new standards here. I was deeply honored late last year to receive the Meese Award for Leadership in the Social Studies from the Kentucky Council for the Social Studies, in large part for my support of the standards.

But I was wrong on one critical issue. One of the key points I made is that there is a distinct difference between standards and curriculum. And I still believe that local curricular decision are far more important for ensuring a rich delivery of social studies content. But now, in light of the complete rewriting of American history that seems to be underway in some political quarters, I believe I was mistaken about how much we should rely on local curriculum to ensure that every Kentucky student has a sufficient grasp of both the founding principles of our nation and the contributions of key historical figures.

When it becomes necessary to publicly defend Abraham Lincoln's role in ending slavery and bringing seismic racial progress in the United States, perhaps it is time to be explicit in asking every Kentucky student to know who Lincoln was and why he is to be revered by every American. Lincoln is not named in Kentucky's ground-breaking social studies standards. His role is implied by the events of the Civil War. But clearly in light of recent events that is simply not enough (nor is it enough to imply, but not name, the role of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights movement, for example).

In future posts I'll discuss further what some of these additions to Kentucky's standards should look like, and especially how local curricula must be carefully selected to ensure that the gallery of America's heroes (of all colors and backgrounds) are taught and celebrated in Kentucky's schools. Doing so does not in any way ignore the dark parts of our collective past (and present), but rather encourages a balanced view that helps us appreciate how far we've come, and how far we need to go, as Americans.

Update: See my expanded discussion of the deficiencies in Kentucky's social studies standards here and the deeply biased materials used to train teachers in their implementation here.

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