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New Minnesota Social-Studies Standards: America the Ugly

John Fonte

Nine years ago a group of history professors from the University of Minnesota sent a letter to the state’s education department. They complained that the history/social-studies standards for Minnesota presented American history too positively. The historians wanted early American history described in terms of “conquest,” “subjugation,” “exploitation,” “enslavement,” and “genocidal impact.” For these academics, the story of America primarily meant slavery for African Americans, genocide for American Indians, subjugation for women, xenophobia for immigrants, and exploitation for poor people.

It looks like the Minnesota academics have finally achieved their goal. This Thursday, December 20, the Minnesota Department of Education will hold a public hearing before approving new standards that emphasize, among other things, “institutional racism.” For example History Standard 20 for the period 18701920 declares: “The student will understand that as the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization, and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform.” [italics added]

Less biased standards might suggest that “the student will understand” that the growth of business enterprise, urbanization, and immigration led to greater prosperity for most Americans, including African Americans who moved to large northern cities and Ellis Island newcomers who chose to become Americans. Further, the period 1870 to 1920 witnessed tremendous technological development and inventions for which Americans are famous: including great advances in medicine; the promotion of public health (including a clean water supply and indoor plumbing), the sewing machine, typewriter, phonograph, and electric light bulb.

But, American achievements are downplayed while the overarching theme becomes “institutionalized racism.” Of course, this logically means that the major “institutions” of American liberal democracy the courts, Congress, the presidency, state and local governments, businesses, churches, civic organizations and the entire democratic system and its civil society are racist and therefore, clearly, illegitimate.


The stated purpose of the Minnesota 2012 standards is “to identity the academic knowledge and skills that prepare students for post-secondary education, work and civic life in the twenty-first century. . . . Students need deep knowledge of this information in order to make sense of their world.”

While the 2004 Standards specifically examined 9/11, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and terrorism, the 2012 Standards, incredibly, include no references to 9/11, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, the Gulf War of 1991, or terrorism itself. Nor is there any hint of a global conflict with terrorists described either as President Bush’s “War on Terror” or President Obama’s “War against violent extremists.” True, there are two tepid references to the “Arab Spring,” but this is hardly adequate to provide the “deep knowledge” needed for students “to make sense of their world.”

The 2004 Standards were a consensus document, greatly influenced by the American Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute’s Education for Democracy Statement of 2002; they were praised by education liberals such as Diane Ravitch; and (unlike 2012) approved by the state legislature. The old Standards emphasized American citizenship and referred to the sacrifices that earlier generations of Americans had made “to win and keep liberty and justice.” They included “patriotism” as a civic value.


The new 2012 Standards speak in generic terms of “civic life in the twenty-first century.” References to a specific American citizenship are rare. “Patriotism” is no longer included in the long list of “civic values.” Loyola University, Baltimore Professor Diana Schaub describes this new tendency as “civics without a country.”

The 2004 Standards examined the idea of “Western civilization” the legacy of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, of which America is a part. In the new 2012 Standards, Western civilization like patriotism disappears as an explicit concept. In contrast to the old Standards, the new Standards examine the Cold War, primarily as a struggle between two great powers over economic systems, deemphasizing the moral conflict between political liberty and Communism.

The results of the new Standards will be the short-changing of Minnesota’s children, but do these Standards have any relevance for the other 49 states? The Minnesota Standards are an example of what “experts” in the education establishment come up with if left to themselves.

The Minnesota Standards are a clear warning to the National Governors Association, the Chief State School Officers, the Gates Foundation, the Obama administration and all the others involved in the development of the Common Core Standards. What type of Common Core Standards should we expect in history and social studies? One wonders.

In 1995, an earlier attempt at National History Standards by civic educators was so biased that it was rejected by the U.S. Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan 991 vote including Minnesota’s two senators at the time, Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rod Grams.

In short, any development of American-citizenship education (history/social studies) standards should involve elected legislators in the states, which have the responsibility for education under the Constitution. Citizenship education for American students is too important to be left to academics, professional educators, business leaders, and federal and state bureaucrats.

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