One of my favorite things about being a Social Studies Teacher is getting to talk about the controversial topics. Some of my favorite teaching moments have been lively classroom debates about President Trump’s wall, NFL players kneeling for the national anthem, and Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King. I pride myself on facilitating open and honest dialogue, getting students to think critically about the issues of our society, and pushing students to listen to other points of view. this encourages students to have empathy for others who do not look or think like them. Rather than avoidance and suppression, thinking and honest dialogue are essential attributes in a free society.
In order for this dialogue to occur, students need to learn about our history, even if that history makes us uncomfortable.
First reported by an article from Bridge Magazine, the review committee to revise Michigan’s Social Studies state standards eliminated or downplayed concepts including core democratic values, the KKK, Roe vs. Wade, climate change, gay rights, and the NAACP.
Outrageously, the committee had clear partisan connections to conservative causes and the Republican party, particularly with the inclusion of 5 well-known conservative activists/politicians on the committee of 21 people, to go along with 0 liberal politicians or activists.
The inclusion of State Senator Patrick Colbeck is the most unforgivable, as he has downplayed the KKK’s racist roots and promulgated conspiracy theories about Islam. Colbeck is running for governor and is an overall intolerable politician. He has worked tirelessly to roll back teachers’ union protections and to proliferate terrible cyber schools, and he is a former charter school board member who believes wholeheartedly in the school choice policies that have further decimated Michigan’s public schools. With his connections to charter schools, cyber schools, and the fact that he attended catholic schools while growing up, it is interesting that State Senator Colbeck suddenly wants to interfere so voraciously in the content selection of public schools.
In response to this egregious right-wing intervention on our classrooms, I attended a public comment session for the standards revisions along with dozens of other teachers, students, and community members. As a group, there was huge dissatisfaction with the downplaying of the word “democracy” just because it is close to “democrats.”
Here’s a video of the public reacting to this justification (hissing done by yours truly):
The panel of MDE board members who took the public’s questions made sure to give very “political” answers that alleviated themselves of any responsibility, and Colbeck and the rest of the conservative activists were not on the panel to answer questions. However, the panel did note the need to revise the standards. Video:
Many thoughtful and intelligent people in the crowd asked questions of the panel or made profound comments about the narrow-mindedness of the standards or of the biased editing process. One very passionate speaker for more inclusion and diversity was Kaitlin Popielarz, a Wayne State ph.D student:
What I loved to see was a student ask a hard-hitting question about why there is no Michigan Social Studies Standard for teaching students how to vote. (Gee, it’s almost like Colbeck and the other conservative activists don’t want the people to vote! ) I agree with this student! Video:
Then, I took the mic and asked a question to the panel: “why were 5 well-known conservative activists and politicians allowed on the committee to revise our Social Studies standards and will they be allowed to revise them in the future?”
The panel did not give me a firm answer, and in fact confirmed that some members of the previous review committee (and LORD KNOWS State Senator Colbeck will make sure he is one of them) will get to review and edit the standards again in the future. Despite the cathartic process of democracy playing out, teachers and citizens will need to stay vigilant about additional standards edits and who is on future committees.
Here was a speech I wrote that I was prepared to share at the meeting (due to time constraints, I was unable to share the full speech):
“I read these proposed Social Studies standards last week and a single idea came to mind, “ignorance is strength.”
This quotation is from the famous dystopian book 1984 by George Orwell, and I could not help to think that this committee is trying to strengthen our state by disappearing or downplaying such concepts as the KKK, Roe vs. Wade, gay rights, climate change, the NAACP, and core democratic values.
Just because you are uncomfortable with how history went, this does not mean that you should alter it. Instead, you should encourage teachers and students to ask questions, to debate, to critically think, to engage in the process of inquiry and to thus care about the world.
To care, to know, and to think are ever-important in our world today, as our society has many problems worth solving and questions worth debating. But we are currently failing at our jobs. Did you know that 11% of Americans (22% of millennials) have never heard of the Holocaust, and 31% of Americans (41% of millennials) think that less than 2 million people died in the Holocaust.
And this is where the downplaying of the word “democracy” by this committee becomes more obscene. Yes, we also have a republic and that should be highlighted, but to delete phrases like “core democratic values” loses our American connection to the famous Greek system of “rule by the people” which differentiates from autocracy “rule by one”, and oligarchy “rule by a small number of people.”
These connections are ever-more necessary in a time where the median wealth of white families is $171,000 while median wealth of Black families is $17,600 and median wealth of Hispanic families is $20,700. In a time where the richest 1 percent of American families owns 40% of the country’s wealth. In a time where just 61.4% of voting aged Americans vote in elections. Students should critically think about how we can better strive for democracy in America, not turn away from the word just because it’s too close to “democrats.”
Freedom, government, war, racism, police brutality, potholes in the roads, wealth inequality, capitalism, guns, gun control, abortion, immigration, privilege, global warming, taxation, welfare. The issues of our time should be debated and discussed in Social Studies classes, not ignored and obfuscated with politically interfering standards.
In a time where students see the realities of our world in front of them every day, ignoring those realities in favor of pre-packaged political goop means creating uninformed citizens who don’t care.
With standards like these, written by a committee that includes 5 well-known conservative activists, including a politician running for governor (without political voices from the other side), students are being blinded from a part of history and debate that goes against the world view of the committee.
We need to have truly politically neutral standards that also shy towards controversial topics in our world today and in our past history, not away from them. We are not strengthening ourselves by being ignorant to the KKK, core democratic values, the NAACP, gay rights, or Roe vs Wade.
Instead, with these proposed standards, we are moving towards George Orwell’s completed warning in the book 1984, “War is peace, Freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.””
If you would like to take action, here are a few easy steps you can do:
1) Fill out this online survey for public comments: https://fs28.formsite.com/pf98Hd/form7/index.html
2) Attend one of the remaining public comment sessions on the proposed Social Studies standards:
June 26- Eastern Upper Peninsula, Sault Ste. Marie
June 27- Michigan Library & Historical Center, Lansing
June 28- Kent ISD, Grand Rapids
3) Read more about the proposed standards changes here:
Awesome Bridge Magazine Article that unearthed this whole mess: https://www.bridgemi.com/talent-education/history-gets-conservative-twist-michigan-social-studies-standards
The Proposed Standards themselves: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/SS_May_2018_Cut_Cap_Final_622356_7.pdf