Recently in Jefferson County, Colorado (my home county), teachers have staged “sick outs,” and students have staged walk-outs, largely to protest a proposal by school board member Julie Williams “to create a Board study committee on Common Core Standards, PARCC assessments and Advanced Placement U.S. History.” The board met on September 18 to discuss the proposal; see the “Agenda Item Details” for that meeting. (Williams’s proposal was just that, a proposal; on September 23, Jeffco schools superintendent Dan McMinimee stated that “no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee.”)
Unfortunately, many of Williams’s critics have badly misrepresented what her proposal states and implies (more on this below). That said, what it states and implies is highly troublesome for anyone concerned about political propagandizing supplanting a sound education in tax-funded classrooms.
Here is what the proposal actually says about how the committee should handle its curricula reviews, starting with “a review of the AP US History curriculum and elementary health curriculum”:
Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.
Aspects of these statements are unobjectionable (and pointless); for example, who would disagree that a presentation of history should be “accurate” and “factual”? It’s not as though anyone is chanting, “Hey, ho, factually accurate history has got to go!” Of course, the questions of which facts are accurate, and how facts should be interpreted, make for rougher going.
Other aspects of Williams’s statements are nonsensical. For example, what does it mean that “theories should be distinguished from fact?” No one confuses a broad theory, which integrates many facts, with an isolated fact. Perhaps what Williams has in mind is that she wishes the committee to distinguish true theories which are supported by facts—as examples, the theory of gravity and the theory of evolution—from propositions or hypotheses which are not supported by facts or which are only partially supported by them. But there is the rub: Why should anyone expect a board-appointed committee to rationally evaluate such things? A controversial proposition is not going to become less controversial because some committee blesses it as a “theory” or a “fact.”
Consider another example: What does it mean for materials to “promote citizenship?” Legally, either you are a U.S. citizen, or you are not. I take it that Williams is not here concerned with persuading people without U.S. citizenship to seek such citizenship, nor with promoting legal changes that would grant U.S. citizenship to more people. What, then, is she proposing? Apparently by “citizenship” she refers to certain attitudes and beliefs that typify a citizen. But what might those be, and, again, why should anyone expect a government committee to rationally determine such things?
Other aspects of Williams’s statement clearly call for advocacy “teaching”; that is, the promotion of ideological views over the presentation of historical facts. Specifically, “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”
So here we have a “conservative” school board member asking a government-appointed committee to instruct government-funded teachers to “promote . . . respect for authority” among their students. Students are supposed to respect the “authority” . . . of what? This niggling detail is left to the imagination, but the most straight-forward reading is that government schools should promote “respect” for the authority of government. Remarkable.
Consider another aspect of the proposal. I am a full-blown capitalist, but I do not want teachers in government schools “promoting”—and what can this mean other than propagandizing in favor of?—the “free enterprise system.” Even to the degree that teachers correctly identify what the “free enterprise system” is, history teachers have no business promoting one ideology over another. Instead, history teachers should concern themselves (and I know this is controversial) with teaching history.
Of course, part of teaching history, depending on the era at hand, involves discussion of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, and the social and economic effects they have had. The problem is that how one evaluates such things, and what facts one sees as relevant in considering them, depends very much on one’s ideology. This is obvious; to see the point one need only contrast the writings of Marx and Mises on the matter. In such cases, what I hope for in teachers, whether they work in government or private schools, is that they fairly present the major lines of thought in the field, along with the relevant facts. For example, it would be wrong of a teacher to discuss only the pollution caused by the Industrial Revolution, without also discussing industry’s profound effects on rising standards of living.
Although teaching is a complex art, the basic point here is that history teachers should teach history, not promote their own (or the school board’s) particular ideological views (beyond the broad views that facts and intellectual honesty are paramount).
If there is to be a committee to review curricula, then, its purpose should be to weed out indoctrination in tax-funded classrooms, not to impose some new type of indoctrination.
Although I oppose Williams’s proposal, some of the criticism of it are far off base. Consider three examples. Jefferson County PTA President Michele Patterson said of the proposal, “Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history? Hiroshima didn’t necessarily look great.” MoveOn.org urged people to “stop public school boards from outlawing historical events such as the Civil Rights Movement, Native American genocide, and slavery.” And Caitlin MacNeal claimed at TPM that Williams’s proposal would “remove the teaching of ‘civil disobedience’ in the AP U.S. History curriculum.”
Those are ridiculous misreadings of what the proposal says. The proposal does not say that materials should not cover historical episodes involving “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law”; it says “materials should not encourage or condone [among students] civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” Further, the proposal says that “instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage,” not that they should exclude negative aspects of them.
It should be needless to say, but obviously the point needs to be explicitly stated here, that misrepresenting what Williams’s proposal says does not promote rational discussion of the matter.
Williams’s proposal is bad enough when read straight; why many of Williams’s critics also feel compelled to fabricate “facts” about it is beyond me. Political activists have no more business fabricating “facts” than history teachers do.
Of course, if we employ the “critical thinking” skills the College Board (the creator of the AP history test) is so eager for us to employ, we will note that, just because Williams’s proposal is substantially misguided, doesn’t imply that all of Williams’s concerns are misplaced or that either the College Board or the teachers’ unions are guided exclusively by the angels. But those are topics for another day.