RANDALL: Educating more Harry Trumans

FILE - In this April 25, 1945, file photo, U.S. President Harry S. Truman speaks from a desk in Washington. The Missouri Senate on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, voted 32-0 on a proposal directing that a statue of the former president from Missouri be displayed in the U.S. Capitol. States get to choose two people for the National Statuary Hall Collection, and Missouri has displayed the same two men since the end of the 19th century. Truman will displace one of them. (AP Photo/File)

“History isn’t just something that ought to be taught, read, or encouraged only because it will make us better citizens,” wrote historian David McCullough. “It will make us a better citizen and it will make us more thoughtful and understanding human beings.” 

North Carolinians deserve and need the best social studies education for their children. They just don’t agree what should be in a good social studies class. There continues to be furious public discussion about the revised social studies standards adopted by the North Carolina State Board of Education (SBOE) in 2021. 

North Carolina won’t have a firm basis for social studies instruction until the North Carolina SBOE adopts better social studies standards. 

State standards are the single most influential documents in America’s education system. State education departments use them to provide guidance to each public K-12 school district and charter school as they create their own courses. 

North Carolina’s Social Studies Standards could be much better. The Standards defy public accountability, because the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which developed the standards and supplemental materials, distributed them in 67 separate files on its website — a tangle of standards, unpacking documents, crosswalks, strand maps, and glossaries. 

The Standards themselves are a tangle of essential standards, clarifying objectives, alignments, and unpackings. The DPI’s bureaucrats make it difficult for anyone to understand just what is in the standards, whether they are teachers, policymakers, or parents. 

There’s a reason they did so. The bureaucrats have buried a great deal of progressive dogma in the Standards. 

The Glossary of Instructional Terms, which provides the “big, overarching concepts and ideas that teachers need to know and understand in order to effectively teach the revised Social Studies Standards,” includes bias, discrimination, disenfranchisement, diverse, equity, gender identity, informed action (a euphemism for protest civics), marginalized, oppression, prejudice, privilege, social justice, stereotype, structural/systemic racism, and voter suppression. 

The Glossary does not include individualism, liberty, patriotism, private property, or virtue. 

The DPI bureaucrats have smuggled “diversity” into the list of “Ideals that are considered fundamental to American public life.” They require students to “Evaluate the U.S. Constitution as a ‘living’ Constitution.” The standards consistently promote identity politics based on simplistic characterizations of race, gender, and ethnicity in our diverse nation. In doing so, they fail to provide North Carolina children with a thorough understanding of history, economics, and political systems. 

Finally, North Carolina has abandoned teaching Western Civilization and substituted a vague World History course. North Carolina students no longer learn the coherent narrative of the ideals and institutions of liberty embedded in the history of Western Civilization.  Parents should demand that the State Board of Education modify current social studies standards and create a year-long high school course in Western Civilization, which would prepare students for content covered in American history, civics, and economics courses also taught in high school. 

North Carolina’s DPI should use the Civics Alliance’s “American Birthright: The Civic Alliance’s Model K-12 Social Studies Standards” as a guide to revise its social studies standards and provide its students a proper civics education. American Birthright, which has been endorsed by Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson and State Representative Larry Strickland, draws on the best existing social studies standards, including the 2003 Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework and Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for Social Studies (2021). 

American Birthright provides the comprehensive content knowledge in history, geography, civics, and economics that schools should teach in each grade from pre-kindergarten through high school, and teaches students to identify the ideals, institutions, and individual examples of human liberty, individualism, religious freedom, and republican self-government; assess the extent to which civilizations have fulfilled these ideals; and describe how the evolution of these ideals in different times and places has contributed to the formation of modern American ideals. 

Above all, American Birthright teaches about the expansion of American liberty to include all Americans, as well as about heroes of liberty such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan. 

Every American student should be educated to be another Harry Truman — a high-school graduate who, without ever graduating from college, had a solid grasp of history and was capable of serving as an officer, a judge, a senator, and president. 

Even state legislation won’t reform social studies instruction if the social studies standards aren’t changed too. North Carolina’s citizens and policymakers should call on North Carolina’s State Board of Education to draw on American Birthright to revise its social studies standards. Only thoroughgoing reform will provide North Carolina’s students the education that can make a generation of new Harry Trumans.

David Randall is director of research at the National Association of Scholars