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Teaching American Values

November 14, 2003

"Far from being "inappropriate," nothing is more "appropriate" in a democracy than for American public schools to teach American values to American children. This is why Americans created public schools in the first place. This is why we agree to pay taxes for public schools. This is at the heart of American democracy."

"These critics need to be reminded that the national history standards that were published in the 1990s, unfortunately turned out to be a biased and flawed set of standards. They not only created a great uproar across the nation, but were actually condemned by the US Senate in an overwhelmingly bi-partisan 99-1 vote. Not surprisingly, both of Minnesota's Senators at the time (1995), Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rod Grams, voted to condemn the national history standards."

"It is not "Eurocentric" to emphasize the study of Western ideas and institutions and the principles of America's founders; it is common sense and essential for education for citizenship in our nation."

The preceding and following are excerpts from a review of the 1st draft of the Minnesota K-12 U.S. History Standards by John D. Fonte, Ph.D.
See the entire review

The Fonte review was submitted before revisions were made on November 1st and November 8th. On November 1st, most of the specifics of what students must know were removed and placed into a category called "examples." The critics who denounced the requirements for teaching, for example, about the pilgrims, Thanksgiving and Columbus were thrilled. Putting the specifics into an examples column renders them meaningless as standards.

The people who want to keep the process-learning of the Profile were also appeased when an entire K-12 strand called "historical skills" suddenly appeared as part of the new academic standards. Critics of knowledge-based learning disapprove of students being forced to learn "facts," which they describe as tedious and mind-numbing. Throughout the hearing process, the process-learning advocates denounced knowledge as "trivial pursuits." In response, some members of the public were sporting "Knowledge isn't Trivial." stickers on November 1st.

"Skills" is a word usually referring to the values-shaping, post-modern world view of education. While scholarly research is an essential element of education, the new definition of "skills" is "re-constructing" history, understanding that all knowledge is "tentative," knowing that "change" is all we can know for sure. Most importantly, "skills" means involving students in social activism that passes for education. These "skills" have become the core curriculum of the new education system. They also describe the Profile of Learning.

Also on November 1st, committee members were informed that the social studies standards would be "integrated" into math and language arts.

Setting aside temporarily the concern of integrating "reconstructed" history into Minnesota's newly created language arts standards, how do teachers integrate social studies into math? "Integrated math," of course. What happened to our new math standards? The battle over fuzzy social issues math has been intense in Minnesota, being one of the forces driving the repeal of the Profile.

On November 8th, last Saturday, one of the above problems was addressed. The U.S. History committee recouped much of what they'd gutted a week earlier, re-inserting specifics back into the standards. They directed the soon-to-meet writing committee to hone the number of specifics down to a more manageable size.

The work of the many people serving on the committees has been difficult, commendable, and, at times, heroic. Yet serious problems remain if with the history standards are to be the knowledge-based standards that the people of Minnesota were promised when the Profile was repealed last Spring

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Excerpts from review of U.S. History Standards: John Fonte:

I will (1) make a few general comments about the document as a whole, (2) provide specific comments about particular parts of the standards, and (3) analyze the issues and ideas that have emerged (explicitly and implicitly) from the public comments that you have received so far.
John D. Fonte, Ph.D
Senior Fellow
Hudson Institute
Washington, DC
...
Overall I believe the Minnesota standards are outstanding, among the best that I have seen in reviewing many state documents. This is true for a number of reasons. First of all, any state standard should clearly delineate what is most important for students to know as future citizens in American democracy. [Specifics are discussed for 4 pages.]

ANALYSIS OF PUBLIC COMMENTS:
There are essentially four categories of public comments.

  • This [1st] group of teachers and other citizens is supportive of the efforts to strengthen the academic content of the social studies curriculum and to teach our young people the essentials of American citizenship in the complex world of the 21st century. This category probably constitutes the overwhelming majority of people in Minnesota, although not necessarily the overwhelming majority of people who wrote in to the Department of Education.
  • This [2nd] group consists almost entirely of elementary and junior high school teachers who are worried that the proposed standards are too difficult for their students. The teachers in this group are sincere and reasonable, but apparently are not aware of all the available evidence that points to the success of solid academic programs for younger students...
  • This [3rd] category consists of people (many of them teachers) who have strongly attacked the draft, yet clearly, have either not read the document or chosen to ignore what is in it, and thus demonstrated what could honestly be characterized as bad faith. That is to say, this group was looking for something to attack and it didn't really matter what was actually in the draft.

    Let us examine in detail what is actually in the draft standards. By mastering the standards students will "understand important cultural aspects of major American Indian tribes, including traditions, customs, and beliefs, as well as their scientific and cultural contributions." They will become familiar with the Dakota, theLakota, the Ojibwe the Kwakiutl, the Inuit, the Iroquois, the Plains, the Woodland, and the Pueblo Indians. They will also learn how Sacagawea assisted the Lewis and Clark expedition. Besides the Indians of North America they will learn about the Indian civilizations of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas.

    In addition, students mastering the standards will learn about pioneer women such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Annie Bidwell, Narcissa Whitman; "slave women gaining freedom in the west," and "Wyoming granting suffrage to women in 1869." They will also learn about the cultures in Minnesota of "Hispanic, Somali, and Hmong immigrants;" of Chinese immigrants in American history; of "the art, literature and music of the Harlem Renaissance," of "artists including Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington;" of the artist Georgia O'Keefe; of "new opportunities for women and minorities" on the home front in World War II. Further students will "identity the significance of civil right movement," and know and understand "the evolving role of women," and "the impact of Viet Nam, Watergate and the counter culture on American life, culture, politics, and economics."

    Furthermore in mastering the standards students will learn "why Harriett Tubman was called 'Moses.' " They will also learn about Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, the African slave trade, the Middle passage, the Southern Plantation system; the impact of North American slavery on colonial life; the women suffrage movement; the Fugitive Slave act, the Dred Scott decision; Reconstruction and the significance of the 13 th , 14 th , and 15 th amendments to the US Constitution immediately following the Civil War. In addition, the standards declare that "students will describe racial segregation, the rise of Jim Crow, and other challenges faced by black citizens in the New South." They will be required to understand the "Great migration [of African-Americans] to the North and West." In addition students, "will know and understand key people and events in the civil rights movement including but not limited to: Brown v Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. (including, but not limited to the 'I have a Dream speech'), Malcolm X and the Voting rights Act." They are also required to describe east African kingdoms of Axum and Zimbabwe and West African civilizations of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai in terms of geography, society, economy, and religion, and have an understanding of colonialism in Africa.

    Any fair-minded observer would recognize the Minnesota standards as balanced and comprehensive. The examples above examine the role of minorities, women and the non-West. At the same time, the standards review traditional topics such as the ideas of Athenian democracy, the Roman republic, Locke, Montesquieu, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers.

  • This [4th] category constitutes a group opposed to what one commentator calls the "patriotism, capitalism, and theism" of the standards. The strident criticism of this group appears to be orchestrated because the same stock phrases are repeated over and again. Their quarrel is not simply with the standards, but apparently with the purpose of public schools and the American system itself.

    The idea that "patriotism" is somehow a "partisan" or "conservative" value as opposed to an American value would be news to Presidential candidates Howard Dean, John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton who have placed an emphasis on patriotism at the center of their campaigns. And it would be news to Senator Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume, President of the NAACP, and the other signatories of the American Federation of Teachers Document, which states forthrightly:

    "Finally, in the proudly pluralistic society that is so uniquely American, the mastery of a common core of history binds us together, creates a common civic identity based on a patriotism of principles, and unites us in a shared undertaking that is both our past and our future."

    Far from being "inappropriate," nothing is more "appropriate" in a democracy than for American public schools to teach American values to American children. This is why Americans created public schools in the first place. This is why we agree to pay taxes for public schools. This is at the heart of American democracy.

    According to a Yankelovich Public Agenda Poll of a random sample of parents of school age children, the American people agree. Eighty-four percent of the parents consider the United States "a unique country that stands for something special in the world," and ninety percent agreed that it "is a better country than most other countries in the world." Eighty-nine percent of parents overall, 88 percent of African-American parents, and 80 percent of Latino parents believe "there's too much attention paid these days to what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough to what they have in common." Moreover, eighty-four percent of the parents overall, 81 percent of African-American parents, and 80 percent of Latino parents would be "upset or somewhat concerned" if their child were "taught that America was, and still is, a fundamentally racist country."

    To ignore patriotic American values, as suggested by some of the public commentators on this draft, would be anti-democratic. It would be "public" education that ignores the "public." Thus, it would be in opposition to a core democratic principle "government by consent of the governed," Moreover it would constitute a taxpayer-funded public education system that would be explicitly against the consent of the overwhelming majority of the American people, as the Public Agenda poll clearly demonstrates.

    National History Standards Revisited? Some critics of the Minnesota standards have complained that the standards' developers have not built upon the framework of the national history standards. These critics need to be reminded that the national history standards that were published in the 1990s, unfortunately turned out to be a biased and flawed set of standards. They not only created a great uproar across the nation, but were actually condemned by the US Senate in an overwhelmingly bi-partisan 99-1 vote. Not surprisingly, both of Minnesota's Senators at the time (1995), Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rod Grams, voted to condemn the national history standards.

    A letter from a group of academic historians at the University of Minnesota essentially calls for replacing this draft with the ideological framework of the national history standards. These historians complain that the current draft paints American history in too positive a light. Instead of using terms like "settlement" and "exploration," they prefer to describe early American history as one of "conquest," "subjugation," "exploitation," and "enslavement." Thus, they want the standards to emphasize the "genocidal impact" of the "European incursions" in the Americas. They see American history primarily in terms of slavery for African-Americans, genocide for American Indians, subjugation for women, xenophobia for immigrants, exploitation for poor people, and economic bullying for other nations. (One wonders why so many people from all over the world are trying (sometimes disparately) to emigrate to this "racist" land and become Americans.) They ridicule the idea that America was "defending freedom" in the struggle against communism in Viet Nam and Korea. (That would be news to the thousands of Vietnamese and Korans who fled communist tyranny for American freedom.) They even ridicule the idea that there is such a thing as "our history."

    The historians' letter complains that the standards are "grossly biased in favor of Europe," i.e.. in favor of Western civilization. But it makes no sense to strive for mathematical parity. If the standards devote equal time to the five or six major cultures in the world, Western Civilization will automatically be shortchanged. Clearly, the study of Western civilization heir to the rich legacy of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, of Judaism and Christianity, of individual rights and political freedom, of the belief in reason and science, the rule of law, and constitutional, liberal democracy is central for students who will be future citizens of this nation. As History Professor Donald Kagan of Yale reminds us, the United States "was never a nation in the sense of resting on common ancestry but one that depends on a set of beliefs and institutions deriving from the Western tradition."

    That Western tradition has shaped our modern world for both good and ill. If liberal democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law are Western ideas, so too are fascism, communism, and nihilism. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis has noted that even the concepts of "Eurocentrism" and "multiculturalism" were invented by Western intellectuals. In fact, to understand today's world, students from all over the globe, not just American ones, have to be thoroughly grounded in the history of Western institutions. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what the top students in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are doing today. It is not "Eurocentric" to emphasize the study of Western ideas and institutions and the principles of America's founders; it is common sense and essential for education for citizenship in our nation.

    In fact, the large influx of non-Western immigrants into the U.S. means that it is more, not less, important for all American students to gain a thorough understanding of the principles and origins of our liberal democracy and our Western heritage. As Sidney Hook put it more than a decade ago, precisely because America is a "pluralistic, multiethnic, and uncoordinated society" all citizens need a "prolonged schooling in the history of our free society, its martyrology, and its national tradition." Just as a hundred years ago it was more important for immigrant children to understand the ideas and institutions of eighteenth century America than those of the Czar's empire, the Ottoman provinces, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, so today it is more important for the children of new immigrants to understand the (Western) ideas and institutions of eighteenth century America than those of eighteenth century Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

    In the final analysis, the overall complaint of the UM historians letter is that the draft does not parrot the negative view of America that they, and many of their colleagues in the academy, propagate to captive student audiences and in their small in-bred journalsthat is what they mean by the phrase "accepted scholarly interpretation" on page 2 of their letter. Of course, these historians are free to advance their opinions, as are the many other historians and scholars who disagree with them. In this memo, I have noted numerous historians and scholars who reject the "national standards revisited approach" of the group at the University of Minnesota. There is no good reason why the State of Minnesota in the post 9/11 world of 2003 should revise this document along the lines of the discredited national history standards of the 1990s.

    On religion. As noted above, one commenter stated, "Teaching about religion violates the separation of church and state." Another wrote, "As a 6th grade teacher, I do not want to teach the Protestant Reformation. I believe in the separation of church and state." These statements reveal that some of the teachers who made public comments on the Minnesota standards do not have the slightest knowledge of the law, the Constitution, or even what constitutes sound educational practice.

    The Supreme Court, lower courts, and state courts have consistently ruled that public schools are supposed to teach about religion, not, obviously, religion, per se. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, "One can hardly respect a system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move society."

    Needless to say, this would include learning "about religion," such as the Protestant Reformation. It would include learning about references to a "creator" in the Declaration of Independence. It would also include learning the significance of patriotic songs that exemplify American ideals during particular periods of historical crisis such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Civil War ("let us live to make men free") and "God Bless America" during World War II and in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks.

    For example, on the night of September 11, 2001 hundreds of members of Congress from across the political spectrum gathered on the Capitol Steps to sing "God Bless America," immigrant Irving Berlin's musical tribute to his adopted country. For our children to learn the meaning of this song and why liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican congressmen (many of them bitter political foes) came together spontaneously on the

    In fact, the large influx of non-Western immigrants into the U.S. means that it is more, not less, important for all American students to gain a thorough understanding of the night of September 11 to sing it, is not "teaching religion." It is teaching American history, in which, religion, and religious language, has sometimes played a role. Why is this so difficult for critics of the Minnesota standards to grasp?

    ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center), a leading resource center funded by the U.S. Department of Education, lists a series of documents that provide guidelines for teaching about religion in the public schools. These include, but are not limited to the following: American Association of School Administrators, Religion in the Public Schools, Arlington, Va, AASA, 1986, ED 274 06; Haynes, Charles C., Religion in American History: What to Teach and How, Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1990. ED 320 845; History- Social Science Framework and Criteria Committee, History Social Science Framework for California Public Schools, Sacramento, CA, State Department of Education, 1988 ED 293 779; Gilbert T. Sewall, Learning About Religion, American Textbook Council, 1998; C Frederick Rissinger, "Religion in the Social Studies Curriculum," ERIC Digest (ED 363 553), August 1993.

    All of this material has been available (most, for more than a decade) to anyone who has done minimal research on teaching about religion in public schools. Again, many of the critics of the Minnesota standards have simply failed to do their homework.

    CONCLUSION. The American Federation of Teachers statement quotes a scholar who observed that on September 11, 2001, "We were attacked for being American. We should at least know what being American means." "Our purpose," the AFT document then continues, "is to strengthen schools' resolve to consciously impart to students the ideals and values on which our free society rests." The Minnesota K-12 Social Studies Standards perform this task admirably.

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