Yesterday, the Kentucky Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt new social studies standards. That’s leading to a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering what the board was thinking, because the standards that got approved are clearly problematic. I’ll be looking at a number of issues with these standards in future blogs, but I am going to start by addressing the amazing dehumanization of history found in the document.
The well-known, award-winning historical novelist Jeff Shaara helps point to this major flaw in the standards with the introduction to his novel, “A Blaze of Glory.” Shaara writes:
“If you have read any of my books, you know that these stories are driven not by events, but by characters. For me, the points of view of the characters in this story are more appealing than the blow-by-blow facts and figures that are the necessary products of history textbooks.”
As Shaara points out, it’s the personalities involved with history who enliven and flesh out the story best.
But, the newly approved social studies standards impressively flunk Shaara’s history lesson. The draft’s focus is strongly on events, and the standards are nearly devoid of any mention of historical personalities.
Among just a few of the amazing omissions of important political figures are James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt along with every other US president except for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Those two get only passing mention – as examples only – in a standard for fifth grade students. Will students ever learn that Washington indeed did hold slaves but also did indeed direct in his will that those slaves were to be freed upon his wife’s death? Who knows?
When it comes to inspiring examples of the American promise, the chance of students being exposed to examples like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and George Westinghouse seems virtually non-existent. None of the nation’s key inventors or industrial developers are mentioned anywhere in the standards. In fact, the only reference in the standards to inventors is a vague, nonspecific requirement to:
“Identify contributions made by inventors in diverse world communities.” (Page 64)
That certainly doesn’t invite any discussion of American exceptionalism, a term, sadly, also nowhere found in the standards.
It gets worse. No important actors in the fabric of the American culture are to be found, either. Neither Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nor any other civil rights activist is named in the standards. The Suffragettes – also suffer. The document just briefly says students will:
“Analyze the impact of the efforts of individuals and reform movements on the expansion of civil rights and liberties.” (Page 142)
That could cover almost anything, but insures coverage of nothing.
On other fronts, the closest our kids are likely to get to Daniel Boone is this factual but rather negative standards statement:
“Early American Indian societies and early explorers had cultural differences that created conflicts they attempted to resolve.” (Page 50)
So, the new standards are all vaguely shaped about events, but people are treated as unspecified incidentals.
Thus, it is anyone’s guess as to exactly which people involved with the civil rights movement, American industrial development, medical science and a host of other human endeavors will, or will not, be mentioned.
It’s a crazy quilt scenario, at best. Whatever historical figures might get mentioned in individual classrooms is left totally up to each school’s council to decide, although some material in the standards indicate that the standards writers didn’t even know that the school councils alone, not even the school districts, control curriculum. With these vague standards and so many different school councils in Kentucky (over 1,100 of them), it’s truly a recipe for a crazy quilt coverage of history all across the state.
For sure, there is no guarantee each Kentucky child will come close to sharing any sort of common core of knowledge in the area of social studies, and whatever will be learned is going to largely be shaped around events, not people.
Shaara would be shocked.
In closing, aside from depersonalizing history, there are a number of other issues with the just-approved standards, which still have to face a public comment period and several legislative reviews. We’ll be covering some of those other problems in future blogs, and you can access a paper here that goes into more details. We encourage our readers to get involved in this issue and get ready to make comments both during that public comment period and to their legislators because our kids deserve better.