Social Studies Education

Is it time for "nationalist" education?

Virtue of Nationalism

Over the last few months I've been pleased to publish a series of essays at The Imaginative Conservative website. Some of these, including "Memory and Hope: Restoring the Teaching of American History" and "What is Patriotic Education?" have been amalgamations of pieces originally published on this blog arguing for a revitalization of social studies education through an explicitly patriotic lens (see related links below).

My latest essay, "Is it Time for 'Nationalist' Education?," builds on these previous articles by applying the lens of nationalism, as presented in Yoram Hazony's 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, to the question of what American education, and especially the study of history, should seek to accomplish.

The word "nationalism" has a public relations problem of course, because it has been associated in the popular mind with bloody racialist and imperialist movements from the Twentieth Century like Nazism. But as Hazony explains, imperialism and nationalism are in fact direct opposite concepts. Nationalism posits that the best political order is one in organized around free and independent nation states.

Imperialism, on the other hand, is the idea that all nations should be united under a common state. This was the aspiration of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. While these blatantly evil forms of imperialism were defeated in 1945, a similarly dangerous form of imperialism has emerged in which "globalists of various sorts have sought to curtail the autonomy of national states through the imposition of a “new world order” of transnational economic and political structures."

The United States is perhaps the most successful nation state in the history of the world, and in this essay I argue that a healthy nationalism should also be at the heart of the American education system. Ideas that flow from this view include the following:

  • Governments arise not from social contracts but deep, pre-political bonds of mutual loyalty.
  • Individual rights emerge from a larger framework of social duties and responsibilities.
  • There is no such thing as a "neutral" state.
  • Multiple nations can be welcomed within a national state - the concept embodied in our national motto e pluribus unum, from the many, one.
  • Nationalism makes us humble, eager to learn from the experiences of other nations and respectful of their differing experiences and traditions.

As we seek to unify the United States following another bitter presidential election, these concepts and their education implications may be more important than ever. Read the full essay here.

Related posts:

Two books help fight back in the war on history

War on history
Though he remains little known outside of Leftist and some social studies education circles, I first discovered Howard Zinn when I was an undergraduate in college nearly 30 years ago. Long before most Americans had heard of Bernie Sanders, and when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was still in diapers, I was a proudly self-proclaimed "democratic socialist." And Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was quickly attaining scriptural status as a Marxist retelling of our nation's history, firing up our demands for a total revolution in America's political and economic system.

I went on to renounce my youthful dalliance with socialism, but Zinn's book continued to grow in popularity. A People's History has made an enormous impact on a generation of history and social studies teachers and has come to represent one of the most egregious examples of the Left's desire to paint America as a uniquely depraved and oppressive regime. 

Two new books take aim at both Zinn's inaccurate, biased presentation of the American story and the larger "war on history" itself. Jarrett Stepman's book takes this phrase as its very title, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past. Stepman's book is paralleled in many ways by Mary Grabar's Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation against America, but her focus is more on Zinn himself, his Marxist agenda, and his unethical and factually incorrect and incomplete work as a historian.

DebunkingBoth books take on some familiar ground that Leftist revisionists have used to incorrectly claim that America is a uniquely racist and unjust society worthy of revolutionary political and social change.

Of course, Americans do have deeply troubling parts of our past too, from slavery and its legacy to the marginalization of women and indigenous people and the mistreatment of immigrants and various religious and ethnic groups. Stepman and Grabar never ignore of minimize these aspects of American history, but neither do they treat these as the sum total of our national story nor as elements that definitively condemn our ancestors and the political, economic, and social system they have left us, which is exactly what the Howard Zinnites in today's university cancel culture, the violent aspects of Black Lives Matter, the historically flawed 1619 Project, and other radical elements of the American Left explicitly try to do.

Some of the favorite targets of these warriors on history include Christopher Columbus, the early American colonists and the pioneers of Westward expansion, the Founding Fathers and their ideals, and even Abraham Lincoln, whom they insist was a racist himself. They paint anyone associated with the Confederacy as moral monsters, including the once highly-regarded Robert E. Lee, and condemn America's ascendency as a world superpower to raw imperialism and capitalist greed.

Between The War on History and Debunking Howard Zinn, Stepman and Grabar take on all of these mischaracterizations of America's history and heroes. Among the points extensively discussed by one or both books:

  • While Christopher Columbus was not a successful administrator of Spanish settlements in the New World, he was a fantastic navigator who expressed deep concern for the native people he found in Hispaniola and admonished his subordinates to treat them with dignity and respect. His motivations were largely religious in nature, rather than monetary. He cannot be held accountable for atrocities committed by those who followed him, and the net effect of his work - the opening up of the Western hemisphere to the most dramatic expansion of economic flourishing and, in the United States, freedom, is vastly positive. 
  • Slavery was practiced in every culture throughout human history. There is nothing uniquely American about it. Many of the Founders were ardent abolitionists or people who were deeply torn morally and philosophically over the issue. The groundwork they laid in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution made it impossible for the country to continue slavery indefinitely and provided the ideals that motivated its end and the ongoing work of ensuring civil rights for all.
  • Most of America's great leaders have been extraordinarily...human. Stepman devotes an entire chapter to Andrew Jackson, one of the most reviled American presidents by many on the political Left. Stepman does not sugar coat his presentation of "Old Hickory." He was, by Stepman's telling, arrogant, abrasive, sometimes dangerously impulsive, and the architect of some policies that led to great tragedy, most famously the "Trail of Tears" migration of Cherokees from the Southeast to Oklahoma. But Jackson was also an amazingly brave and effective war hero who, by leading American success at the Battle of New Orleans, definitively saved the republic from the ever-present shadow of foreign invasion and resubjugation. And Jackson's views on Native Americans was far from hateful. He believed relocation of the Cherokees would protect them from rapacious white settlers and even adopted a Native American child and raised as his own son.
  • Robert E. Lee picked the wrong side in the Civil War, but Stepman shows how Lee's greatness is due more to his leadership after the war, when as the most popular figure of the Confederacy he championed reconciliation instead of on-going war and conflict.

Grabar's Debunking Howard Zinn covers similar material, but also includes chapters on the Marxist distortion of many of the events of the 20th century, including the so-called communist witch hunts and the Vietnam War. While Joseph McCarthy did falsely accuse some people, the truth is there was a massive infiltration of devoted communists in virtually every sector of society and at the highest levels of power deliberately trying to undermine the American regime and bring a Marxist revolution to the U.S. heartland.

Howard Zinn was himself, Grabar argues, one of those Marxists. She documents the considerable evidence that Zinn was an active member of the Communist Party (something he never renounced) and his efforts to influence young civil rights activists toward Marxist thinking and strategies. 

But it wasn't just Zinn's radical beliefs that make his book A People's History so deeply flawed and problematic. Grabar shows the countless instances in which Zinn essentially plagiarized other scholars' work or engaged in gross editing of original sources to fake history according to his own radical narrative. Zinn's work isn't just wrong from a political and moral standpoint; it is also just bad historical scholarship.

Sadly, Zinn's influence is far greater than most Americans even know. Grabar also documents this pervasive influence, including the millions of copies of A People's History that have been sold, the vast educational "resources" based on his work that are being used in schools, and the failed attempts to challenge the use of the book in both higher education and K12.

I've been writing all summer about the need for parents, policy officials, and educators to take a deeper look at how history is being taught in our schools and to insist on a more comprehensive and truthful presentation of America's past (see related links bel0w). The War on History and Debunking Howard Zinn are powerful tools for supporting this effort.

Related links:

See for yourself: biased Kentucky teacher training materials for social studies

Last week I wrote about teacher training materials developed for the Kentucky Department of Education to implement the state's deficient social studies standards. Those training materials reflect a deep Left-wing bias and would effectively indoctrinate students into anti-American attitudes.

Of great concerns is the fact that these training materials are not available to the general public. The videos associated with each of the modules are on YouTube, however, even though you can't search for them. Below are the links to those videos so that anyone who wants to view them may do so. In particular I would draw your attention to Module Two where the examples of guiding questions are presented. For further discussion on these materials, and why they are so problematic, see my previous post.

Module 1: The Big Ideas of Social Studies:

Big Ideas for the KAS in Social Studies

Why Inquiry Matters

Kentucky’s Inquiry Practices

Equity as a Big Idea

Equity as a Big Idea: Inquiry Pedagogy and Equity

Literacy as a Big Idea: Making Meaning in Elementary Social Studies

Literacy as a Big Idea: Making Meaning in Secondary Social Studies

Action as a Big Idea: KAS and Taking Action

Action as a Big Idea: The Big and Small of Civic Engagement

Module 2: Making Inquiry Visible in Social Studies

Making Inquiry Visible in Kentucky Social Studies Classrooms

Introduction to Framing an Inquiry

Finding the Right Content Angle

Crafting a Compelling Question

Framing an Inquiry with Argument Stems

Filling an Inquiry

Sequencing the Content Through Supporting Questions

Building Knowledge Through Formative Performance Tasks

Using Disciplinary Sources to Construct Arguments

Finishing an Inquiry

Creating Curiosity by Staging the Compelling Question

Making Connections with Extension Tasks

Taking Informed Action

Making Inquiry Critical

Crafting Critical Inquiries

Module 3: Getting to Work

Module Overview

Finding the Focal Point for Inquiry

Creating a Curriculum Map (Elementary)

Elementary Literacy

Building a Culture of Inquiry (Elementary)

Middle School Focal Point

Middle School Curriculum Map

Creating a Culture of Inquiry (Middle Grades)

Argumentation in Middle School

Finding a Focal Point (High School)

Creating a Curriculum Map (High School)

Building a Culture of Inquiry at the High School Level

Argumentation in High School SS

Finding Sources to Do Inquiry

Related links:

More misuses of inquiry learning to propagandize K-12 students


On Monday I wrote about how the Kentucky Department of Education's training materials for helping teachers implement the state's inadequate social studies standards are deliberately designed to promote a left-wing bias in students. Two days later, a Lexington television station reported on how an online quiz given to a Fayette County Public Schools 5th grade class deliberately portrayed Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake as "victims of police violence."

The Kentucky Peace Officers Association justifiably objected to this biased characterization of those events, but amazingly the district defended the teacher, claiming that the quiz was "taken out of context" because it was tied to a lesson on NBA players boycotting games as a protest of the Jacob Blake incident.

The protests and violence that ensued after the shooting of Jacob Blake are definitely appropriate topics for social studies classrooms (though fifth graders may be a bit young for engaging the full complexity of this issue and these events). What is not appropriate is teaching students to view those events through only one perspective. Portraying Taylor and Blake as "victims of police violence" clearly implies that they were innocent and the police were in the wrong.

The police may, in fact, have been wrong in either or both of those cases. Investigations are still underway and evidence is too preliminary for anyone to reasonably make that judgment. As David Deavel argues, justice is not the prerogative of mobs:

No matter how much people shout for “justice,” it is not possible to reach justice by rendering a sentence before a verdict is found taking into account all the evidence. Nor is it possible to reach justice by getting revenge on Peter to stick it to Paul. Much less by burning down the city the alleged victims and perpetrators both live in.

Nor is it the prerogative of this 5th grade teacher to impart her own opinions about these matters to her students as if they were fact.

Sadly, beyond Kentucky we are seeing other examples of ideological bias seeping into K-12 classrooms under the guise of inquiry learning. Even the National Geographic Society has gotten into the act.

Vicki Phillips, fellow Western Kentucky Hilltopper and now chief education officer for National Geographic, wrote last week for Edutopia about using project-based learning to engage students in current events. Like with inquiry learning, PBL is driven by a question or set of guiding questions. Phillips suggests some:

What effect does racial injustice have in my community? Why is it happening there? What can we do?

These questions are more subtle that the blatantly biased questions in Kentucky's Inquiry Read modules, but still are based on a clear assumption that students are supposed to take for granted: Racial injustice exists in this community and it is the student's job to root it out and confront it. Our community is unjust, and that injustice needs to be made right.

Again, this is a worthy topic for inquiry, but the way questions are framed makes all the difference in whether students can arrive at their own, independent conclusions, and whether they will be exposed to a wide range of sources and perspectives to inform those conclusions. Why not frame the questions this way?

What racial inequities exist in my community? Where do they come from? What can or should we do about them?

Racial inequities are an indisputable fact in virtually every community. But injustice is a judgment. It may in many cases be the correct judgment, but it should not be the starting point for this kind of inquiry learning. It could be a potential outcome. More importantly, though, is thinking critically about what can and should be done to address the inequities, rather than focusing on seeking out villains to blame.

Inquiry learning has so much promise, but only if it is done extremely well and with the great care that students can really uncover the rich complexity of political, social, economic, and cultural issues. Drew Perkins, host of the TeachThought podcast, saw my post last week about the problems with Kentucky's Inquiry Ready modules. In a quick series of tweets Drew rewrote every one of the poorly worded guiding questions in the Kentucky training materials:

Drew demonstrates how any of these topics are potentially appropriate for inquiry, but don't have to be presented from one definitive ideological standpoint. 

I would take the issue of income inequality even further with my own set of guiding questions: Where does income inequality come from? What are its consequences? What would be the reasons for, and potential problems with, various strategies to address income inequality?

Questions like these allow students to arrive at a multitude of conclusions and proposed action strategies. But how many Kentucky teachers are using inquiry learning poorly, or with an ideological intent? It is imperative for parents, school administrators, and local boards of education to find out, and insist we do better.

Kentucky teachers are being encouraged to use "inquiry methods" to indoctrinate students in Leftist attitudes

In my previous post I discussed inadequacies in Kentucky's education standards for social studies. These are standards that, as a former member of the Kentucky Board of Education, I supported and helped to approve. But since then I've become convinced that these standards need more work, especially making them more content specific, a process that should involve teachers, parents, civics advocates, and lawmakers. The standards include much to admire and I believe their deficiencies can be addressed.

What is far more problematic, however, are some of the training materials that were developed by the Kentucky Department of Education to help teachers understand and implement the standards. These "Inquiry Ready" modules are accessed via the Kentucky Department of Education's Social Studies Professional Learning Modules page, but are not available to parents or community members, although I was able to get access through my university credentials. Videos associated with the modules are on YouTube, but are not easily searchable without information directly from modules themselves. It is extremely concerning that these materials, funded by tax payers, are essentially hidden from the general public.

It’s important to keep in mind that these are training materials. They do not appear in the standards themselves, and to my knowledge were never vetted by KBE (if a reader can correct me on that I'd welcome it). I do not believe schools are bound to use these materials or the inquiry design model itself. But this is the way KDE is attempting to train teachers in the new social studies standards, and it figures as a method for "taking [standards implementation] to the next level" in the KDE Standards Implementation Guidance Document for Social Studies. According to KDE, as of today 750 teachers across the state have completed these modules.

Unfortunately, these Inquiry Ready modules provide enormous potential for abuse, and especially for students to be indoctrinated in leftist ideology. I recently wrote about how critical theory is seeping into our schools and the larger culture, and why that is so dangerous.

The Inquiry Design Model being promoted by KDE is explicitly founded on critical theory assumptions.

The inquiry design model is based on posing “compelling questions” to motivate student interest and exploration of content topics through critical-thinking tasks that require immersion in many primary and secondary historical sources. Sounds fine, at least in theory, although I think the approach puts too much emphasis on what kinds of topics (questions) are relevant to students.

One of the early videos says that students care about “fairness, relationships, conflicts, norms, and power relationships.”

Well, they do. But that’s not all students are interested in. Good teachers can inspire student interest in a very wide variety of topics. Using such a narrow list, though, sets the stage for how the Inquiry Ready modules introduce critical theory as the lens through which it expects teachers to teach.

Still, the first module on The Big Ideas of Social Studies is fairly innocuous. In the second module, however, teachers are fully introduced to a method of inquiry learning that is custom-designed to lead students toward progressive-liberal conclusions. In a discussion of possible compelling questions, the following are given as examples:

  • Does GDP tell the right story?
  • How can the US reduce income inequality?
  • Do people around the world care about children’s rights?
  • Did the attack on Pearl Harbor unify Americans?

These questions are extremely problematic because they seem to have the answer the question designer is hoping the students come up with built into them.

In the first example, GDP (gross domestic product) definitely tells a story about a nation’s economic well-being. Of course, it doesn’t tell the whole story. But the question, especially framed in a yes-no structure, leads students directly to conclude that GDP does NOT tell the “right” story, and other metrics, I suppose, do.

Likewise, the second question assumes income inequality is a problem and should be reduced. Will students introduced to this “compelling” question be exposed to sources that suggest that income inequality is not, in fact, a problem? Or that efforts to reduce it might have negative consequences? Or how income inequality is an inevitable feature of a market economy? Or how other metrics like social mobility might be better ways of understanding the problems posed by differences in economic outcome? If the question is framed as written, it seems highly unlikely.

Continue reading "Kentucky teachers are being encouraged to use "inquiry methods" to indoctrinate students in Leftist attitudes" »

Kentucky's social studies standards need more work

Headlines from the summer of 2020 show cities burning from riots and looting, statues and the reputations of American heroes being defaced and torn down, and a ferociously intolerant ideology in full operation within the ranks of the media, academia, and politics. These events are not emerging spontaneously and are only tangentially motivated by specific incidents like the death of George Floyd. Instead, they are part of a larger, long-term effort to overthrow the core values and institutions of the United States. And part of that effort has been a concerted war on America's history, a systematic attempt to inaccurately portray America and its founding as irredeemably and uniquely hateful, racist, and broken.

Over the last two months I've been writing about how Americans must resist this war on history, especially as it is being waged in our P-12 schools (see related links below). We must take a much greater role in understanding what is being taught about America's past and assuring that our students understand the rich complexity of our national story - both the good and the bad of our past - and develop the capacity to both appreciate the goodness of America and to critique her flaws in ways that lead us toward an ever-fuller realization of our founding principles.

We must not be afraid to set a goal that our education system should produce patriots. That doesn't mean creating unthinking, xenophobic automatons, of course, which is what the enemies of patriotic education will tell you. It means citizens who can productively criticize their country because they love her and the ideals she stands for.

As a Kentucky educator, of course my greatest interest is how history - and the social studies in general - are being taught here in the Commonwealth. And one of the first places we need to look is in Kentucky's academic standards for social studies. While the latest version of the standards, adopted in 2019, is a vast improvement from what came before, I have come to believe that they are woefully inadequate in terms of the specific knowledge, skills, and dispositions we should expect of our graduates. And as I will point out in a follow up post, some of the supporting materials around the standards are extremely problematic and promote a terribly inadequate understanding of America's past.

As I wrote previously, this topic is deeply personal to me as a former social studies teacher with a Master's degree in history. During my tenure on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019 I served as chair of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee and was responsible for helping shepherd the latest standards to their ultimate approval.

I am generally pleased that the standards are organized into grade-specific bands. This shows that teachers, especially in grades K-8, are not off the hook for teaching social studies even though the topic may not be assessed every year. The level of detail in the standards, compared to what preceded them, is much improved. And there's even some rich language in the introduction about the kind of person we want students to become as a result of their learning:

Democracy’s survival depends upon the generational transmission of the political vision of liberty and equality that makes and unites Americans. The preservation of this American vision is dependent upon the willingness and ability of its citizens to collaboratively and deliberately address problems, defend their own rights and the rights of others and balance personal interests with the general welfare of society. It also depends on a loyalty to the political institutions the founders created. Devotion to human dignity and freedom, equal rights, justice, the rule of law, tolerance of diversity, mutual assistance, personal and civic responsibility, self-restraint and self-respect must be learned and practiced. The preparation of young people for participation in America’s democratic society is vital. The progress of communities and the state, nation and world rests upon the preparation of young people to collaboratively balance personal interest with the public good.

The standards themselves, though improved, do not provide a great deal of detail, however, about what students are supposed to know and be able to do to achieve the goals described in the above paragraph. Consider the following kindergarten standard (K.C.RR.1): "Identify roles and responsibilities of self and others at home, in school, and in neighborhood settings." What exactly would those roles and responsibilities be? 

Similarly, the next standard (K.C.RR.2) says, "Identify symbols and events that represent American patriotism." Which symbols and events? How is a teacher to know what to teach here?

Thankfully, the standards come with a set of "Disciplinary Clarifications" that provide examples. These Disciplinary Clarifications were in development and in draft form for grades K-8 at the time of the standards' approval by KBE. The high school clarifications just emerged in December 2019. 

The Discipilinary Clarifications are somewhat helpful - up to a point. So for the first standard we find, "The roles and responsibilities of being a responsible citizen in the school, home and neighborhood may include, but are not limited to, being helpful to and respectful of others and volunteering for and carrying out tasks beneficial to the community, such as helping a classmate with a difficult math problem, putting away the dishes at home or volunteering to clean up a local park."

Continue reading "Kentucky's social studies standards need more work" »

Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history


Update: I was delighted to have a version of this essay published by The Imaginative Conservative.

In my most recent series of essays (see links below) I've argued for a much more intentional and self-consciously patriotic approach to the teaching of American history and civics. I have repeatedly cited political scientist Eliot A. Cohen's essay, "History, Critical and Patriotic" as a key inspiration. Cohen argues that there is no contradiction between nurturing in students an appreciation for America's past and form of government and also acknowledging the failures of our past and our collective struggle to live up to the core principles of the nation's founding. 

Nevertheless, some social studies educators have reacted to my proposal with deep skepticism, insisting - often in direct contradiction to my own words - that I am seeking to indoctrinate students in some type of blind allegiance to America that denies her complicated and often morally messy past.

What is indoctrination, however, is the approach to American history that has pervaded our schools over the last generation, one that is so common many social studies teachers have taken it for granted as the American story and the way to teach it to students. This approach presents America in the worst possible light, distorting the full truth of our past and ultimately damaging our political health.

In my last post I cited Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen's essay, Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange, to support this concept of the critical patriot. I've taken further inspiration from another essay by Deneen, found in the same collection, Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents, called "Progress and Memory: Making Whole Our Historical Sense" (text of an early version, presented as a speech, can be accessed here).

In "Progress and Memory," Deneen argues that three key ideologies tend to dominate American political thought, each with its own distorted attitude toward time, particularly the past. Deneen identifies these maladaptive philosophies, which promote various kinds of disconnection between present, past, and future, as liberalism, progressivism, and nostalgism. He argues for the concept of "temporal continuity," which he associates with a healthy conservatism, that unites a "felt-presence of past and future in the present."

I believe that temporal continuity is precisely what is missing from our current approach to the teaching of American history and civics in many of our K-12 schools, primarily because of the dominance of liberal and progressive ideas within the education establishment. A restoration of temporal continuity could be a key to revitalizing history and civics education that forms young people who both appreciate the gifts of the past and also possess the capacity for independent and critical thinking, especially as they engage as virtuous citizens in our democratic republic.

Deneen argues that liberalism, which originates primarily in the thought of John Locke (but also proto-liberals like Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes), "begins with a radical critique of the ancestral:"

That which is bequeathed us from the past is understood to be a form of generational oppression...Liberalism inaugurates a project in legitimacy that can only be conferred upon a human institution when that institution has been chosen...The anthropology of liberalism divorces us from time past and time future. Humans are de-cultured and a-historical creatures: in the State of Nature there is only Now-time, absent culture or memory, history or planning...The claims of the ancestral - of the past - are to exert no preferential claim upon us.

I remember from my own experiences learning - and then teaching - social studies, that we took (and taught) the construct of the social contract as a given. That the purpose of governments was to secure maximum liberty, understood as the freedom to do as we please as long as we don't interfere with the "right" of others to do as they please. The liberal lens tends to see history as one long struggle to liberate individuals to pursue their own happiness in a realm of pure choice, free of the stifling restraints of family, religion, and societal expectations. 

So consider the common way the Pilgrims are now presented in American classrooms. They are not heroes of religious freedom, brave political pioneers whose Mayflower Compact helped lay the groundwork for self-government in America. No, the Pilgrims were intolerant theocrats who suppressed the religious liberties of dissenters in their midst and brought disease and destruction upon the Native Americans. That both of these things is, at least partially, true is too complex a picture for the liberal mind bent only on advocating for the perpetual liberation of the individual over the very society which forms him.

Meanwhile, progressivism is a form of liberalism that is utterly dissatisfied with the personal "liberty" liberalism alleges to have secured for us. It is not enough to be free, we must also seek a particular kind of justice. Simply put, the present is not good enough, and progressives fix their eyes on an idealized future.

If liberalism put all human institutions on the footing of choice - even family - Progressivism regarded all such institutions as fundamentally illegitimate, partial expressions of our true social and even "cosmic" consciousness. Thus Progressivism set in its sights all partial and intermediary institutions, whether marriage, family, church, fraternal association, neighborhood, partial political units such as the States, even and ultimately the Nation itself. In the end all such partial allegiances were to be dissolved in favor of the universal embrace of humanity itself, and thus - in the name of the Future - efforts to accelerate the dissolution of those partial associations were justified in the present...Egalitarianism is posited as a desirable future condition, an aspiration that justifies the beneficent and paternalistic rule of sufficiently progressed elites in the Present.

And thus, with the heightened presence of progressivism in our schools and culture, our education system has tilted even further toward a theory of history that encourages young people to seek out the villains, and to see the past and our collective political and social heritage as a collection of crushingly conformist and illegitimate institutions that must be eliminated in the name of equity, grievance, or restitution for past wrongs. Perhaps the best example of this attitude is captured in the New York Times' historically inaccurate 1619 Project, which has been adopted as a curriculum in numerous schools around the U.S.

Continue reading "Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history" »

E pluribus unum: Another essential principle of "patriotic" American history


Update, 10/28/20: Portions of this post recently appeared as an essay published by The Imaginative Conservative called, "What is Patriotic Education?"

My on-going series (see parts 1, 2, and 3 linked below) of posts calling for a more patriotic approach to the teaching of American history has generated a range of reactions, some very negative, from a handful of educators. In a Twitter exchange with a social studies educator, I was admonished for using the term "our collective identity as Americans." He claimed that the phrase "sounds awfully racist."

His suggestion that it might be racist to believe we have a national identity that is bigger and more encompassing than our individual racial, religious, or other identity-group affiliations perfectly illustrates why I think we need a more comprehensive and appreciative approach to American history.

In my most recent post, I articulated the key values, principles, and assumptions of patriotic history, and I argued that those were also the exact same principles, values, and beliefs that motivated the American Founding and its central documents and structure of governance.

But evidently I overlooked another essential principle, which is encapsulated in our national motto, "E pluribus unum" - "from the many, One."

For the American republic to function, we do indeed need to have an understanding that while we or our ancestors came from many different places and in many different ways, while we are plural in our religious traditions and ways of life, we nevertheless share a common bond as Americans.

And it is through that bond - forged in faith that our Founding principles are good and true and enduring enough to be defended and to guide our path forward to a "more perfect union," that we will overcome our on-going economic, social, cultural, and political challenges.

Few Americans embodied that faith better than Martin Luther King, Jr.

Commemorating the MLK holiday earlier this year, the Dallas Morning News editorial board celebrated his "audacious faith in the future:"

The central tenet of the American experiment, and really the democratic experiment, is that people are not made to organize themselves into perpetually warring tribes and factions. The promise is that, in a democracy, a plural people can live together in harmony and prosperity in a system where each voice matters.

King believed in that possibility. He believed in the American experiment, even as he viewed it in the unsentimental light of a man who had experienced its oppression, its contradictions and the consequences of the lies about humanity that had made slavery and segregation possible.

Nevertheless, he believed.

As King saw it, the citizen of good conscience had to work not to tear down America but rather to insist that it live up to its ideals, its founding principles of liberty, but that it do this work while facing its failure to fully embrace the promise of equality.

This is what sets MLK aside from today's iconoclasts who seek to destroy monuments to American figures as diverse as Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, who tell an historically inaccurate version of America that implies we have made no progress as a people, and that in fact the American experiment was corrupt and racist from the start and must be torn down and replaced by....something. Their vision of the future is not audacious, like Martin Luther King's. It is simply a future of violence and silencing of opposition and tyranny.

There is no "America" when there is nothing that unifies us beyond our different identities and divisions.

As I have said repeatedly, this kind of audacious faith in America does not involve "whitewashing" our history, neglecting to explore the contradictions between our professed values and our lived experience. It is rather to tell the whole story of our past, which includes the bad with the good. This is why I have so frequently quoted political scientist Eliot Cohen and his call for a history that is both "critical and patriotic."

Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, writing just after the events of September 11, 2001 in an essay called Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange, thoughtfully explored this dynamic between patriotism and criticism, or what he termed political theory.

Patriotism is not always a good thing, Deneen reminds us. The word theory, he explains, comes from a Greek word that described a specific job in ancient Athens. The theoroi were city officials whose job was to leave the city and study other lands and people. Their position was critical in that they were looking for new ideas, perspectives, and practices that could make Athens better. But this kind of theorist did his work because he first had an "abiding appreciation for the customs and practices of his own way of life:"

These are not mutually exclusive qualities, but intimately connected. A theorist was, by definition a patriot—one who treasured his cultural inheritance and traditions, knew intimately the stories and histories of his homeland, and saw these as fundamentally constitutive of his identity. At the same time, it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to a renewed devotion to those practices, in some instances, or to subtle questioning of dubious customs, in others.

Deneen contrasts this kind of critical patriot with the "theorizing" of Rene Descartes, whose approach most closely mimics that of modern cosmopolitans who dismiss patriotism as small-minded and parochial:

Rather than proceeding from a sympathetic stance toward the inheritance of his own legacy, Descartes begins with radical suspicion toward all that has preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is a result of the common endeavors of a community or a people...Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy’s estrangement from the place where philosophy begins—among, and with, one’s fellow citizens—and ultimately, modern philosophy’s estrangement from the world. He is the very model of the proudly ungrateful anti-patriot.

Deneen concludes his essay be rejecting any patriotism that is also not critical, but also rejects criticism that is not rooted in a deep appreciation for what has come before, including the capacity and right to be critical of those very institutions. "After September 11, it is all the more imperative that we citizens of a democratic country make that 'sacred journey' of the theorist," he writes, "one that intensifies our vision, one that starts and ends in gratitude, and from which we may hope to deepen those devotions that America deserves—and that, through such patriotic vision, it will deserve ever more."

So yes, we are descendents of immigrants from Africa or Europe or Asia, or perhaps immigrants ourselves. We are people of all skin colors and religions. The stories of how we have struggled over those differences and some of our fellow Americans have suffered - and sometimes continue to suffer - immensely as a result are central to our story.

But this nevertheless is "our story," the story of one, immensely diverse and frequently flawed people, who nevertheless keep striving to be e pluribus unum.

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The principles and values of "patriotic" American history


Update: Portions of this post recently appeared in an essay for The Imaginative Conservative called, "What is Patriotic Education?"

In a recent series of posts I've been arguing that, given widespread efforts to rewrite American history and portray our Founders and the Founding itself in the worst possible light, schools need to rethink the way we teach this vitally important subject. I argued that we should be approaching the study of American history in a way that is, in the words of political scientist Eliot Cohen, both "critical and patriotic." 

I don't presume to know exactly what the process of establishing such a critical and patriotic approach should look like. This endeavor requires the input of history scholars, social studies teachers, school and civic leaders, local and state boards of education, and political officials who share a common commitment to revitalizing the study of the American past. On this blog, however, I'd like to try to stake out the key assumptions, issues, concerns, and components of an intentionally patriotic approach to our story as Americans, and invite further discussion and dialogue with others.

Most recently I suggested that any discussion of a more patriotic approach to the teaching of history first requires a fresh look at our standards for social studies, and then a deeper look at the curricula schools use to address those standards. This will be the topic of future posts. 

In the meantime, I've heard from a handful of educators, mostly social studies teachers, who have responded with deep concerns about what I'm proposing. So in the next few posts I'd like to elaborate a bit on what we're talking about when we say we need a more intentionally patriotic approach to U.S. history - and also what we do not mean. As I acknowledged in my first post on this topic, taking a patriotic stance toward American history will undoubtedly be controversial. But it's important that we don't misunderstand what we mean and make this seem even more controversial than it actually is.

I am not entirely surprised that social studies teachers have pushed back on me about this topic. It's easy to read this as a criticism of how they've been doing their jobs. And I won't pretend that shifting our focus doesn't have critical implications for the way we've been teaching history. I just think the vast majority of social studies teachers aren't intentionally trying to undermine their students' attitudes toward America. They are teaching the way they've been taught, the way textbooks are often organized, and have come to take for granted the myth that the delivery of history can and should somehow be unbiased. Before all the logistics of how we take a more patriotic approach to this subject, it's first important to note that what are talking about is a philosophical stance, full of explicit values and assumptions. These assumptions include, but are not limited to, the following:

The belief that America's Founding was a good thing. This includes believing that the events of 1776, and the subsequent efforts to iron out a workable constitution, and the next 244 years of trying to help the U.S. live up to its founding ideals, represent a significantly positive development in human political and social history. It includes the assumption that the United States is an exceptional country, not in the sense that it is better than any other nation, but that it is unique, and offers a uniquely valuable model of political organization that is worth cherishing and defending. This does not mean that we hide, in any way, the complex character of our Founders, who were clearly flawed human beings and products of their own time. It does not mean that we gloss over or neglect the many ways that we have failed to live up to our Founding principles. In fact, the story of extending basic political rights and equal opportunity to all Americans is a key to our history. But it does mean rejecting ahistorical ideas, such as those presented by the 1619 Project, that America's "true" founding was based entirely around the institution of slavery and white power, or that our Founding itself was irredeemably flawed, as were the Founders, because of their moral blind spots and costly errors. It means, as the organizers of the 1776 Unites project declare

[We] uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.

This core belief that America's founding is something worth defending and admiring, along with the beliefs articulated below, does not require us to force students to share this belief. They may come to their own conclusions about America's worth in the world. But this assumption should be a starting point that guides our selection of curriculum materials, our instructional methods, and our goals for what we seek to accomplish through the teaching of history.

The understanding that America's political traditions are inextricably linked to an older English heritage. The American Revolution did not happen in a vacuum, but rather reflected key political beliefs that can be traced back through hundreds of years of English common law, dating all the way back to the Magna Carta and beyond. There was a great diversity of political philosophies at work in the American Founding, of course, as Yoram Hazony has documented, but the general consensus was that the American experiment was building on values and institutions that preceded it (updated: see Ofir Haivry's discussion of this topic here, and Daniel McCarthy's here). This is why Americans rejected the bloodbath that become the French Revolution, which sought to destroy every existing institution of civil society and ultimately led to a totalitarian state under Napoleon. Americans have a rebellious spirit, yes. But as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830's, they also have a reverence for tradition and the institutions of civil society that make a republican form of government possible.

A confidence that our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and their historical antecedents like the Magna Carta, represent a uniquely valuable roadmap for political organization and human progress. To the extent that America needs to always be reformed, it is ideally done so through the same mechanisms established by these documents and the core principles that animate them.

And that means a faith in the core principles of the Founding. These principles include, but may not be limited to, the following:

  • the dignity of the individual
  • the rule of law
  • equality of opportunity
  • a lightly-regulated economy that provides opportunities for all individuals to excel through hard work, determination, and innovation
  • government that is limited so that no faction can assume too much power and threaten the liberties of others
  • subsidiarity - the belief that decisions should be made at the most local level possible to adequately address policy problems, embodied in our concept of federalism
  • republicanism - representative democracy as the best method of securing the values noted above
  • an understanding that human flourishing is about far more than politics; that the institutions of civil society like family, religious organizations, civic groups, small businesses, etc., are where true happiness is found and where humans are formed in the virtues necessary to participate in and maintain a republic embodying all the other virtues described above

These are the guiding principles and assumptions of a patriotic approach to the teaching of American history, along with the express goal that graduates of our K-12 schools should understand and appreciate these principles, even if they don't completely share them. In the next post I'll say more about how patriotic history accepts that it has biases and can defend them, and rejects the idea that there are any "unbiased" approaches to this subject. I'll also try to say more about what patriotic American history is not: it is not ignoring or explaining away the social and political sins of our past; it does not require us to assess the depth or quality of students' patriotism; and it does not dictate nor proscribe specific instructional methods, although methods should take into account the underlying assumptions noted above.

I especially welcome the continued feedback and dialogue of social studies teachers to these ideas, as none of this is possible without a well-educated, passionate, and independent-minded cadre of history teachers to carry out the work.

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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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