That our society is fraying all around us is self-evident. Poisonous partisan politics, as well as scandals and corruption in government, military, banking, education, churches and social organizations have plagued us for years. It is in times like these that we must come together. One often overlooked foundation for our nation is how and what we teach in the social studies.
Students who understand our history and civics are best equipped to contribute mightily to our society and deal with the threats to our freedoms and liberties. Those who are misinformed and ignorant of our history and Constitution are easy fodder for oppression and demagogues. This is not a partisan issue, it is an American issue. It is about the survival of freedom.
A former member and employee of the State Board of Education, I wrote the policy that mandated the adoption of K-12 social studies standards. I influenced the development of our current standards (adopted in 2007), and was involved in drafting revisions that were sent for public comment in 2018. The 2007 standards and 2018 draft were far from perfect (indeed, I was highly critical in some areas). For reasons less to do with the standards and more to do with partisan politics and misinformation, the 2018 draft standards were sent for further revision, and I participated in that process as well. My expectation was that the 2018 flaws would be remedied.
Instead, the 2019 draft is a huge step backward.
First, key figures, events and concepts are omitted as required content. Socrates, Plato, Athens, Julius Caesar (or any Caesar), Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Alexander the Great, Columbus, James Madison, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Obama, taxation without representation, constitutional amendments, constitutional conventions, the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution are not required content. While some of the individuals or events are suggested as examples, the reality is that a student could attend 13 years of public schooling in Michigan and never hear of any of them. This is more likely than one might suppose, because only mandatory content can be state tested, and none of this is mandatory.
Second, the standards are imprecise, unclear and ill-defined. There are at least 17 different terms addressing America’s democratic values and constitutional principles. Examples include “core principles,” “core ideals,” “ideals,” “philosophical origins of Constitutional government,” “ideas about government,” “basic values and principles,” “democratic values” and “”Constitutional principles of American government.”
Words have meaning. The civics committee I served on recommended the use of clearly defined and consistent terminology that would have been a model for the nation. We provided a coherent framework for teaching democratic values (i.e., the philosophy underlying the Declaration of Independence) and constitutional principles (i.e., the way the democratic values are expressed in the Constitution). Not that it matters, but a liberal Democrat and I spearheaded this approach together. For unfathomable reasons, this attempt has been rejected for confusion in the classroom.
Third, the standards misrepresent and minimize fundamental democratic values. They give short shrift to the right to alter or abolish an oppressive government — the linchpin of the Declaration of Independence; embrace the “social contract” — a French concept posited by Rousseau which led to the guillotine; and improperly refer to “individual rights” (which can be given and taken away by government) when unalienable rights (which we are born with and cannot be taken away by government) is the centerpiece of our liberty.
Fourth, the standards undermine, omit and dilute the higher order thinking and inquiry-based instruction that research reveals is key to student achievement. Hawaii, New York and other states revised their standards in just this manner, but Michigan is choosing to be left behind.
Fifth, a state mandate about the Michigan Constitution is subverted.
Sixth, the standards are biased. They highlight the progressive movement and minimize the conservative movement. A prior 2018 draft attempted to add balance by adding a few references to the conservative movement. The current draft censors many of those references, and doubles down in favor of the progressive movement. More than 20 examples for the Progressive Era exist in one standard alone. There is no equivalency for conservatives.
Seventh, there is so much more. I have written a line-by-line, 8,500 word critique only a few major issues are highlighted here.
If Michigan desires to lead the nation in quality, historical accuracy, and critical thinking, the standards need a major improvement. Public input is being sought now, and the draft is scheduled to return to the State Board of Education in June.
Make your voice heard. The future of our free society depends on it.
About the author: Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court judge, co-creator of Patriot Week and author of “America’s Survival Guide.”
This guest commentary first appeared in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan.