by James A. Bacon

Broadly speaking, there are two interpretive frameworks for viewing the history of the United States.

The traditional framework sees the glass as half full: the U.S. was founded on the ideal that all men were entitled to equal rights that provided for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although those ideals applied mainly to White males at the time, the country has led the world in evolving from monarchies, empires, and systems of servitude toward a society in which everyone, including women and racial minorities, enjoys something approaching equal rights. The work may not be finished — it may never be — but great progress has been made.

An alternative and increasingly common framework sees the glass as mostly empty: the U.S. was founded in the sin of slavery and patriarchy. The story of the country is a recounting of varying forms of oppression by White heterosexual males towards marginalized groups. Only the outer forms of oppression have changed. American society remains grievously unjust.

One is pragmatic; the other is dogmatic. One judges the U.S. by contrasting the present to the past; the other judges the U.S. by comparing the present to a utopian ideal that has never existed.

Those worldviews are contending for dominance in America today, and nowhere is the conflict more evident than in Virginia’s public schools. That’s why the Youngkin administration’s efforts to overhaul the History and Social Studies standards for the Standards of Learning have been so contentious.

There has been much misinformation about the proposed standards, the final version of which has been submitted to the Board of Education for approval, such as the demonstrably false but endlessly repeated claim that the Youngkin administration intended to stop teaching about difficult subjects such as slavery, segregation and racism.

The “guiding principles” of the new standards state clearly:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of the world, United States and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of war and genocide including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Native Americans, the stain of slavery, segregation and racism, in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of communist regimes.

But students also will learn about humanity’s great achievements: from Greek and Roman engineering, architecture and art, to the European Enlightenment, the founding of the nation, and the defeat of fascism and communism. In sum, states the document, “students will have an in-depth understanding of good and bad in the world, United States and Virginia.”

But don’t think that the controversy will end. To some, only the bad is worth teaching. Anything else will be tarred as a “whitewash” or an apology for White supremacy.

To be sure, the foundational principles for History and Social Sciences learning standards will warm the cockles of conservative hearts (quoting verbatim):

  • Individual liberty and representative government are cornerstones of the American way of life;
  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the freedoms and framework for out constitutional republic;
  • We aspire to live up to the Founders’ ideals for a society that recognizes that all individuals are created equal;
  • From thirteen diverse colonies to a unified nation, “E Pluribus Unum” — “Out of Many, One” — has always been our strength. Immigrants from around the world continue to come to our shores seeking freedom and opportunity to build a better life and have contributed to our communities and added to the rich history of achievement in our country.
  • Free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law enable an economic system that allocates assets through free markets and competition and fosters innovation, opportunity and efficiency.
  • Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems is incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms.
  • America is exceptional and not perfect.
  • The rights codified in the United States and Virginia constitutions and the Bill of Rights provide freedoms that place a responsibility on current and future generations of Americans to engage in the political process with civility and fulfill their civic duty.
  • Over the ages, civilizations have grown, prospered and vanished. Every student should understand that our great American Experiment is not guaranteed forever. As Benjamin Franklin warned citizens over 200 years ago, “you have a republic … if you can keep it.”

I agree 100% with these principles. However, I am keenly aware that most are controversial today. I can understand why those with left-of-center beliefs would be concerned that the Youngkin administration intends to replace woke dogma with conservative dogma.

While younger students should be taught basic facts and concepts, older students should be taught that there are different ways to interpret history as well as different ways to view current events. They should learn the thinking of the founding fathers and their intellectual heirs as well as that of the enemies of the American project, from the slaveholder critique of industrial society, to the labor-movement critique, to the Marxist critique, and, yes, even the woke critique. Students should be exposed to many currents of thought and encouraged to think for themselves.

In evaluating the History and Social Science standards, it is important to understand that the foundational principles enunciated above are just that: principles. They inspired the construction of the standards. But they are not the standards themselves.

In the actual standards, students will be asked to compare different political and economic systems such as capitalism, communism, Marxism, socialism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. While they will learn about America’s progress toward equal rights, they also will learn how “slavery is the antithesis of freedom.”

The Standards are not Eurocentric. They cover Asian empires, pre-colonial African kingdoms and indigenous American societies. They are not a whitewash. Students will learn about the Ku Klux Klan, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the maltreatment of indigenous peoples and the internment of Japanese Americans. But the Standards also highlight human achievement as well as human depravity, and they do show a 250-year progression. If you think something is wrong with that, then nothing short of the 1619 Project will likely satisfy you.

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22 responses to “Teaching History the Right Way”

  1. M. Purdy Avatar

    Obviously a vast improvement over the last comically bad set of standards. Most of the principles are good, but these two in particular should most likely be raised as hypotheses and not statements of fact:

    “Free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law enable an economic system that allocates assets through free markets and competition and fosters innovation, opportunity and efficiency.”

    I would frame this as a question, rather than a statement of fact, or even add the words “supposed to” between “that” and “allocates.” There are plenty of examples of where the downsides of free enterprise, unqualified property rights, and the rule of unjust laws had to be challenged.

    “Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems is incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms.”

    This one strikes me as loaded, and would need to be reworded. The primary issues I see is that many western democracies, and some in the far east, have a lot of centralized planning, wealth redistribution and social safety nets, which are commonly referred to as “socialist” policies. They are also not lacking in democratic institutions or protection of individual rights.

    1. More importantly these are not historical questions. Do they still teach civics? Or perhaps political science?

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Those two as written are perhaps the most important.

      “Free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law enable an economic system that allocates assets through free markets and competition and fosters innovation, opportunity and efficiency.”

      That is objectively true. You complain that there are crooks in the world. That is also true. Governments exist to protect against crooks.

      “Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems is incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms.”

      That should be revised to say that the Congress and the President have increasingly left to administrative agencies much of the work to enforce laws. Those agencies engage in centralized planning to the degree that laws permit and sometimes beyond what they permit.

      Then give:
      (1) examples outside of wartime in which they have done that and it has improved society. Clean air act and Clean Water Act have been very expensive, but have indeed cleaned up the air and water in the U.S.;
      (2) examples in which it has not. Great Society welfare legislation and its administration are rich with examples; and
      (3) examples in which it has been struck down as unconstitutional encroachment on legislative authority. Cite the court cases.

      Use the command economy switch to green energy as an example on which the results are not yet in.

      Show that European and American democratic socialism depend for funds on the productivity of their capitalist economies.

      Show that no communist economic system has ever worked.

      Give the example of China that was rescued from a 17th century economy after Mao died by the adoption of capitalist economics by the CCP. Show that in the last 4 years China tried to regress to a command economy with overregulation and purges of its political opposition as “economic criminals>. Show that the CCP at least publicly surrendered that attempt at the latest party congress, reemphasizing a capitalist economy with Communist political control

      1. M. Purdy Avatar

        It’s not true in all cases, and there are obvious exceptions in US history. Slavery was free enterprise, protected by law as “property.” It failed to innovate, offer opportunity, undermined competition, and led to serious misallocation of resources. I could also cite sweatshops, antitrust, unions, Jim Crow, housing covenants, federal authority to appropriate private lands, etc. as policies or practices that contravene the “free enterprise, private property, law” guarantee of efficient, innovative, or societally acceptable outcomes. Your statement about the delegation of governing to the administrative state is a common conservative trope, but it’s unrealistic in that it doesn’t comprehend the full complexity of modern societies and economies. The people you and I elect, with very few exceptions, are not experts on anything except how to get elected. Many know less about nuclear power, medicine, chemistry, radio waves, transportation safety, cold fusion, the internet, etc. than the average citizen. They are incapable of creating legal regimes for such industries. You want to rein those administrative agencies in, fine, but the notion that you’ll have direct governance of inherently complex industries is dead and gone.

  2. AlH - Deckplates Avatar
    AlH – Deckplates

    The actual happenings of the past are important to know. This is to include governance, politics, wars, famine, people’s migrations, and etc. History teaching also includes important to know is stuff such as living conditions, improvements in medicine, and technological advancements.

    Who discovered the first compass? It was the Chinese. However, it was the Europeans who modified it for widespread use on ships. And we Americans developed the satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) technology which the whole world is using.

    Another good example is how the first money was made, and then later used for bartering. The 20th century transition toward our, U.S., Automated Clearing House (ACH), and world-wide electronic exchanges are useful teachings to early high school students.

    I like reading positive articles, discussing what could be improved in the veracity of teaching history. The philosophy stuff is a “shinney object” type of distraction. Doing the best, we can do for reality and how to use that realism is more important for the young formative years of learning. We should know the past, deal with the present, and plan for the future.

  3. I agree with promoting critical thinking through a diverse range of thinkers. However, you can understand the concern with the principles, right? Would you trust a governor with leftist principles that these are just principles and merely inspire the standards?

  4. Teddy007 Avatar

    It is considered a mistake to teach American history from the POV that everything is always getting better.

    1. M. Purdy Avatar

      I mean, it is a mistake. Things don’t always get better.

      1. Teddy007 Avatar

        There is a full chapter in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen concerning the issue. I also found the chapter on deification interesting.

  5. I do not see how these two “interpretive frameworks” affect the teaching of history, nor the praising “principles” for that matter. The discipline of history is first about what happened, second is thinking about why it happened.

    Both the frameworks and the principles are larded with value judgements, which have little to do with the specific events being studied from class to class. Whether America is great or not, how and how not, etc., are not historical questions.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I agree. You teach what happened. You do not “interpret” it. It’s up to each person to form their own judgement based on the facts.

    2. James McCarthy Avatar
      James McCarthy

      Frameworks may serve one purpose. “What happened” as the first goal depends very much upon what is selected to present. FL’s laws on what is to be taught in schools and companies focused upon material that did not make individuals feel uncomfortable. IMO, that is one of the goals of ethe educational process. Nor does that mean that the material must be interpreted. As Larry notes, such conclusions are those of the students.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        History that doesn’t make ANYONE uncomfortable. How freaking boring. Just the facts alone can do that. Love Wayne S’s demonstration that what he wants taught is not history, not interpretation of history, but revealed religion and theology! (Assuming he means we should indeed TEACH that we are “endowed by our creator,” not merely that the founders espoused that.)

        1. Do you think our country was founded on the idea that the government grants us our rights?

          My comment was not intended to have anything to do with religion or theology. Yes, the Declaration uses the words “endowed by our creator”. However, the Constitution makes it clear each person is free to have his own interpretation of what that “creator” consists of.

          If you believe one or more gods created you, then your rights were endowed by one or more gods. If you believe that you were created by a process of natural evolution, then that evolution process, or perhaps “nature”, is what endowed you with those rights.

          The point is, as people we have rights which supersede the powers of any government. No revealed religion or theology is necessary to believe that man has natural rights.

          In history class, we should teach facts and explain what our founders believed and espoused.

          However, it is factually incorrect to state that the Constitution and Declaration provide us our freedoms, because our founders actually said that they do not do that. They were there when the documents were written. They should know the facts about their intent.

          It would be just as uncontroversial, and more factual to state it like this:

          “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the framework for our constitutional republic and for government which protects and respects our rights.”

  6. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    “But don’t think that the controversy will end.” Got that right. As M. Purdy proved posting right before me. Maybe we stick to, oh, I don’t know, actual history and not political philosophy?

    1. Well put. History should be about what happened, not what we think about what happened.

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Yes but… There was some virtue on the colonial side in our revolution. Would you really want to present that as value neutral? Or WWII, the Germans lost, but no commentary on the evil of the Nazis or that Mussolini made the trains run on time, but at what cost?

        1. Matt Adams Avatar
          Matt Adams

          Exactly, if were to teach history about WWI from the victor’s point of view, we wouldn’t understand the underlying issues with the Treaty of Versailles which led to WWII because of it’s impact on the German people.

      2. I disagree.

        Teaching history is interpreting history. It has to be. Otherwise it is just rote memorization of the dates of discreet events.

        The key is teaching the facts of historical events and teaching different interpretations of the causes and effects of those events and encouraging students to continue thinking about these events so they can form their own conclusions and interpretations.

    2. Political philosophies are part of history. They cannot, or at any rate should not, be separated from events which occurred as a result of people’s acceptance/rejection/interpretation/implementation of those philosophies.

      Teaching the Russian Revolution without covering the underlying political philosophies which help explain why it occurred would not only be extremely boring, it would be all but impossible.

  7. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the freedoms and framework for out constitutional republic;

    If those words are verbatim from the standards, then the standards are in dire need of revision. In their present form they are far from warming this conservative’s heart.

    No document of any kind provides our freedoms. The Declaration and the Constitution recognize that our freedoms exist, and they endeavor to minimize government interference with those freedoms, but they are absolutely not the source of those freedoms.

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    The US History standards have essentially reverted back to what they were in the early 2000s. If I were teaching 11th grade still the only major revision I would make to my lesson planning is to exclude Stonewall Jackson. He is not on the test anymore. Other than that it looks like the same old standards from the past. The SOL test is a minimum standard. When the bell rings and the door closes teachers are still going to teach what they think is right about history. The guiding principles? Whatever. Not on the test. Who is writing the test questions? That deserves an answer for they will shape what is taught as average teachers prepare yet again to teach to the test.

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