Presentation before the Minnesota State Senate Education Committee

Review of Minnesota 2012 Social Studies Standards

Presentation before the Minnesota State Senate Education Committee, April 2012

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture

Let me preface by stating that my experience includes examining and vetting history-social studies curricula for around 25 years: 

  • as a member of the steering committee of the congressionally-mandated National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), "the nation's report card" for content in civics; 
  • as a senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Education for nine years, who worked on content issues in history and civics for NAEP;
  • as principal advisor for CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education funded the Pew Charitable Trust, and appointed by the general editor to write the chapter on The Federalist Papers;
  • as an educational consultant for the Texas Education Agency, the Virginia Department of Education, the California Academic Standards Commission, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania.
  • as a history and social studies teacher in junior high school, high school, and college  


In reviewing the 2004 Minnesota History and Social Studies Standards I wrote at the time, "Overall, I believe the Minnesota standards are outstanding, among the best that I have seen in reviewing many state documents."  The most important task of social studies-civic education in American public schools is to prepare our children for citizenship in American liberal democracy. Therefore, standards should delineate what is most important for students to know in order to prepare them for citizenship in the United States in the Twenty-First Century.

Shortly before the development of the 2004 Standards the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers developed a consensus document called Education for Democracy.

The AFT document declared: "We must transmit to each new generation the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us as Americans, and a deep loyalty to the political institutions put together to fulfill that vision… we are part of the noblest effort in history…. Our children must learn, and we must teach them, the knowledge, values and habits that will best protect and extend this precious inheritance. Our schools play a major part in this mission, and we the signatories of this document pledge them our full support and call upon all Americans to join us."

The AFT statement was signed by a broad bi-partisan group of prominent Americans including including former President Bill Clinton; Jeanne Kirkpatrick; Senator Edward Kennedy; Diane Ravitch;  Reg Weaver, President of the National Education Association; Sandra Feldman, President of the American Federation of Teachers; Kweisi Mfume, President of the NAACP; Arturo Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers of America; former Michigan Governor, John Engler; the historian David McCulloch; educator John Goodlad; and many others.

The AFT document provided a "gold standard" for state social studies and history standards and the Minnesota 2004 Standards essentially responded to this challenge by focusing on providing students with the knowledge and skills that are most important to become future citizens in America's democratic republic. Unfortunately, the proposed Minnesota 2012 Standards are woefully inadequate to the task of preparing students for the challenges of the future.

Let us compare some major points between the two sets of standards. At the very beginning the 2004 Standards clearly state that "Public education in Minnesota must help students gain the knowledge and skills that are necessary to, in Jefferson's view,  protect and maintain freedom."  The Standards further declare on page 2, that students should learn American history because (pg 3):

"The study of U.S. History helps students understand the democratic traditions of the United States and how those traditions were established and how they continue in the present. U.S. History also helps students understand that the United States is a nation built on ordinary and extraordinary individuals united in an on-going quest for liberty, freedom, justice, and opportunity. It helps students understand how much courage and sacrifice it has taken to win and keep liberty and justice." 

In contrast the 2012 Standards (pg 4) state their purpose in the following language in the introduction:

"The 2011 [2012] Standards are guided by a vision of citizenship and college and career readiness. As required by law, the standards identity the academic knowledge and skills that prepare students for postsecondary education, work and civic life in the twenty-first century."

"In order to meet this vision, the standards require students to understand the facts, concepts, principles and perspectives that shape the social studies disciplines. Students need deep knowledge of this information in order to make sense of their world."

The difference in tone between the two sets of standards in their introductory explanations of purpose is striking.  Whereas the 2004 Standards robustly emphasized American citizenship, even with quotes from Jefferson and references to the sacrifices earlier generations of Americans had made "to win and keep liberty and justice," The revised 2012 Standards speak only in generic terms of citizenship and "civic life in the twenty-first century." There is no specific reference to American citizenship. The document's introductory explanations of purpose could have been written for a social studies curriculum in any democratic country.

Leaving aside the issue of why the revised standards strips the earlier American emphasis from its explanatory remarks, let us focus on the stated purpose of the 2012 Standards—"Students need a deep knowledge of this information [i.e., the information in the revised standards] in order to make sense of their world."


The 2012 Standards do deal with some of the important aspects of the contemporary world such as the rise of China and increasing globalization, particularly in trade and economics. However, there is a glaring omission.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda on major America targets including the New York World Trade Center and the Defense Department headquarters in the Pentagon, the United States has been involved in a major counter-terrorism effort. The Bush Administration called it the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the Obama Administration describes it as countering violent extremism. For American soldiers, sailors, airmen, special forces, Seals, CIA and FBI agents it is the same struggle whatever its name, and to what extent it involves military or law-enforcement personnel.  

This conflict involved the death of thousands of Americans (and others) on September 11. It has involved the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and a multiyear insurgency in that country; a NATO military campaign in Afghanistan for more than a decade; massive terrorist attacks by radical Islamists in London and Madrid; the killing of American soldiers in Ft Hood, Arkansas by Major Hassan; the prevention of numerous   terrorist attacks on US soil; and the killing of Al Qaeda's leader Osama Bin Laden by Navy Seals.

Incredibly, almost none of this is referred to in the Minnesota 2012 Academic Social Studies Standards. Specifically, there are no references to September 11 or 9/11; no references to Al Qaeda, no references to Osama Bin Laden, no references to the Iraq War, no references to Saddam Hussein or the first Gulf War of 1991;  no references to the War in Afghanistan; no references to terrorism or counter-terrorism; no references to the Taliban; no references to the conflict with radical Islamists described either in President Bush's terms as "Global War on Terror" or in President Obama's formulation as "Countering Violent Extremism."

There are two references to the Arab Spring (pp 89, 94) which are hardly adequate to deal with the events of the past decade. One of the main geopolitical results of the Arab Spring is the emergence of major Islamist political parties, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. However, the 2012 Standards never refer to Islamism (political Islam) in any form, radical or moderate?however one chooses to portray this major political force in the Middle East.

To examine the matters listed above does not represent a "partisan," "ideological," or "conservative" perspective but one that prepares students for real world politics. As the National Security Strategy document of May 2010 signed by President Obama declares: "The United States is waging a global campaign against Al-Qa'ida and its terrorist affiliates." The stated goal of this Obama Administration document is to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qa'ida and its violent extremist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world." There is no hint of this global campaign in the standards.  

Given the paucity of information and analysis of conflicts in the contemporary world, the 2012 revised Standards fail in their self-described tasks of "preparing" students for "civic life in the twenty-first century." The revised standards tell us (correctly) that "Students need deep knowledge of this information [in the standards] in order to make sense of their world." But, if the 2012 Standards are not themselves drastically revised, students will clearly not be able "to make sense of their world."

In contrast to the revised 2012 standards, the earlier 2004 standards contained references to 9/11-September 11 (pp 8, 38, 74); Osama Bin Laden (p.20); Terrorism (pp. 20, 37, 79); War on Terror (pp 20, 79); Iraq War (p. 20); Gulf War of 1991 (p. 20); War in Afghanistan (p.20); and the Taliban (p.20).   


For fifty years of the 20th century, almost continuously from Pearl Harbor (1941) to the fall of the Soviet Union 1991), the United States was involved in conflicts with major totalitarian powers including National Socialist Germany in World War II and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The 2012 Standards note that Nazi Germany was a totalitarian regime, but the USSR under Stalin is not listed as a totalitarian state. The revised standards' examination of the nature of the Cold War?what President John F Kennedy described as "the long twilight struggle" that American leaders from Truman to Reagan waged against communism?is inadequate. For example (p 143) a key benchmark on the Cold War states "Compare and Contrast market and command economic systems and their associated political ideologies; explain how these differences contributed to the development of the Cold War. For example: Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine, Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis."

The  Cold War section of the 2012 Standards presents an incomplete view of the nature of the conflict which was primarily a struggle (as President Truman declared in announcing the Truman Doctrine) between those who favored political freedom and those who sought to impose totalitarian dictatorship across a large swath of the planet. It was not primarily a morally equivalent struggle between "market and command economies and their associated ideologies." There is a reference to differences in political and economic ideologies and values between the Western democracies and the Soviet bloc, but this point is blurred by the emphasis throughout the revised text on rivalry among great powers which mostly avoids the human cost of communist rule.  

In this regard, it is important to note that documents (including, particularly, Soviet archives made available in the  1990s) make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Communist governments in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and elsewhere were responsible for the largest number of victims of genocide in the Twentieth Century. The authoritative Black Book of Communism (1999, Harvard University Press, chief editor scholar Stephane Courtois, a best seller in Europe when published in France in 1997) estimates the total of deaths between 80 and 100 million. This number is greater than the deaths caused by all other Twentieth Century dictatorships combined (including Nazi Germnay). See also The Great Terror: A Reassessment by British scholar Robert Conquest; and Gulag: A History by Washington Post journalist Anne Applebaum.

Yet, there are no references in the 2012 Standards to the Soviet Gulag, the millions who were killed in China during Mao's cultural revolution, the Cambodian Genocide, and the continuing repression in North Korea. Nor are there any references in the revised standards to Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov (who won a Nobel Prize), his wife Elena Bonner, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Nor are there any references to Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, Polish Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Thatcher, or President Reagan in the final demise of the Soviet Union.

Some public comments on the 2004 Standards complained that President Reagan's role in the fall of the USSR was highlighted. I wrote, at the time, and since it is still relevant, I will repeat it below:  

"I noticed some complaints in the public comments about the "role of Ronald Reagan," but Soviet leader M. Gorbachev and his chief advisor Alexander Yakovlev have both credited Reagan's role in the Western victory in the Cold War. For a bipartisan cast you could also mention Harry S. Truman's resolve in confronting the Soviet threat at the beginning of the Cold War. This would also make sense in Minnesota terms because Senator Hubert Humphrey was a leader of the pro-Truman anti-communist forces in the 1948 election campaign. Thus, you would have two bookends,  Democrat Truman at the beginning and Republican Reagan at the end, Presidents who successfully met the challenge of international communism."

In a related matter the 2012 Standards suggest that anti-communism on the home front was mainly a matter of the "Red Scare," "McCarthyism" and "Hollywood Black List." Yet, Soviet archives, particularly the famous Venona documents, have revealed that there were Soviet agents working with American Communists  who were spying for the Soviet Union against the United States. There wasn't simply a "Red Scare," in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as the work of John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have amply demonstrated. In Minnesota, Democratic Farmer-Labor political leader Hubert Humphrey was leading the fight against American Communists in labor unions and farm organizations. As I wrote about the 2004 standards (and still relevant):

"This is a controversial area of history, but we must follow the evidence where it leads and it leads to a serious Red threat, not simply a "Red scare." In other words, Joe McCarthy (who exaggerated) is not the whole story. Minnesota students should understand that there were real spies and real traitors, that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and that to dismiss anti-communism as a "Red Scare" or a "witch hunt" (as some widely used textbooks assert) does not stand the test of the evidence that is now available."

The 2004 standards do a better job of covering the important aspects of the Cold War discussing the oppression of communist rule, the Gulag and the role of Lech Walesa, Reagan, and Thatcher.  


It is explained on page 10 "How to read the Standards," that "Each standard should be prefaced with the statement, "The student will understand that…" Indeed, one of the major problems with the overall 2012 Standards document is that many of the core standards themselves are biased and presented in tendentious language. This tends to reinforce a highly ideological and negative view of the American liberal democratic system that has become increasing influential in the humanities and social sciences in American universities in recent years.

One of the most egregious examples of bias is U.S. History Standard 20 which reads: 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 to reform. (Development of an industrial United States 1870-1920) 

The key concept in this standard is "institutionalized racism," an extremely loaded construct used by those who condemn the American "system" in its entirety. After all, "institutional racism" means that the major institutions of American liberal democracy?Congress, the courts, the Presidency, the federal government, state governments, churches, businesses, civic organizations, etc?the entire democratic system and all of its institutions are  racist and therefore, obviously illegitimate.

Thus, this standard is telling us that "the student will understand" that American political and economic system from 1870 to 1920 was illegitimate?although it was the most democratic and provided the most economic opportunity of any governmental system in the world at the time. The standard is claming (falsely) that the growth of business enterprise, the move from farms to cities, and large scale immigration led to "institutional racism." This is a rather dubious thesis. Certainly, Jim Crow (segregation) in southern states and racist and discriminatory institutions were a major part of the history of this period. But the growth of business enterprise, urbanization, and large scale immigration did not lead to nation-wide "institutionalized racism" as these standards assert.

What the growth of business enterprise, urbanization, and immigration did lead to is greater prosperity for most Americans, including African Americans who moved to large northern cities and newcomers from across the Atlantic who choose to become Americans. It is also true that the advance in business production and urbanization led to the tremendous technological development and inventions for which Americans are famous. The period 1870 to 1920 included great advances in medicine; the promotion of public health (including a clear water supply and indoor plumbing). Further, inventions in this era included the sewing machine, the typewriter, and Thomas Edison's phonograph and the electric light bulb. Students need to understand both the positive and the negative in American history. The revised standards fail in this regard.

The 2004 Standards handle the same historical period in a straight-forward manner without the loaded and strident language of the revised version. Thus the 2004 Standards read in the following manner.

The Strand (overarching period) is: "Reshaping the Nation: The Emergence of Modern America 1877-1916." The core standard reads: "The student will analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in response to the Industrial Revolution."

This standard lists 4 benchmarks, as follows:

(1) Students will identify and understand the reasons for the increase in immigration, growth in cities, new inventions, and political challenges to American government arising from the industrial revolution and analyze their impact.

(2) Students will identity and explain racial segregation and racism, including the rise of "Jim Crow," the Ku Klux Klan, discrimination against immigrants, and the relocation of American Indian tribes to reservations and analyze the impact of these actions.

(3) Students will analyze how the rise of big business, the growth of industry, and the change in life on American farms and small towns with increased mechanization of life in America.

(4) Students will analyze the impact of the Progressive Movement on child labor and working conditions; the rise of organized labor: women's suffrage and temperance movement and identity the contributions of individuals in these movements.

The 2004 Standards then list four examples.

"Political attitudes toward the post-Reconstruction South, transcontinental railroad and immigrant labor, American Indian relocation to reservations."

"The growth of ethnic stereotyping , American Indian boarding schools, Wounded Knee, Chinese exclusion, Plessy v. Ferguson."

"Andrew Carnegie, Standard Oil, McCormick Reaper, Populist Movement, The Grange."

"Samuel Gompers, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Hoover, Susan B, Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Adams, NWSA, Frances Willard and the WCTU."

What emerges in the above comparison between the two documents is a polemical bias built into the 2012 Standards and a more of less straight forward neutrality of conceptualization and language in the 2004 Standards.  This pattern is repeated again and again.


According to the Star Tribune, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education ("New Draft of Social Studies Curriculum up for Review." April 10, 2011) declared that one of the main purposes of the revised standards is to reduce the overall size of the document and focus instead on large concepts ("what we're focusing on are the larger concepts, principles, and processes. We're not going to focus on the name of every individual the students need to know in history." Fair enough, this sounds logical?but as we have seen?large concepts of major significance for understanding the world we live in, for example, the challenge of global Islamist terrorism have been downplayed or ignored in the 2012 Standards.

One of the extremely significant historical concepts that simply disappears in the revised standards is the very idea of Western Civilization. The 2004 Standards explicitly referred to Western Civilization and examined both its pre-modern (the legacy of Athens, Jerusalem and Rome) and modern elements (the Enlightenment both Scientific and Philosophical).

In the larger historical picture the United States is product of Western Civilization. The moral-cultural-intellectual framework of American constitutional democracy rests on a synthesis (and clearly tension and argument) among different aspects of the West. In this sense Western civilization is a combination of the pre-modern elements Athens (reason and rationality from Greek philosophy), Jerusalem (Christianity and Judaism, for example the best selling book of all time in the United States is the Hebrew and Christian Bible), and Rome (meaning the rule of law rather than coercion) with the 16th -17th -18th  century European Enlightenment in Philosophy, Science, Technology, and Politics (of which the American Founders were a part) that ushered in the modern era in world history.

Minnesota students should have some understanding of what Western Civilization is?and how the cultural-philosophical-ethical basis of the American political, economic, and cultural system in terns of values and ideas is drawn from this wellspring. Unfortunately, the concept and significance of Western Civilization is not clear in the revised standards.

Besides these big picture problems there are myriad minor (and unnecessary) biases throughout the text of the revised standards. I will note two examples here. First, the US History Standard 21 states "The economic growth, cultural innovation, and political apathy of the 1920s ended in the Great Depression which spurred new forms of government intervention and renewed labor activism."  Why is the word "apathy" in the text?  With women voting nationwide for the first time, more citizens were in involved in politics than in previous decades.  Second, the 2004 Standards (p. 66) under the K-3 strand on government and citizenship give examples of how students demonstrate knowledge of civic values. The 2004 version lists as examples of civic values patriotism, liberty, self-reliance, cooperation, responsibility, honesty, courage, and self-discipline. The 2012 Standards drop all references to "patriotism" in the text. The word simply disappears. Why?


In short, the 2012 revised Standards are themselves in need of major revision that should be closer to the 2004 original.. As a start it might be useful to look at two new books that emphasize the importance of civic education. One is a collection of essays entitled Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, (Roman and Littlefield, 2011). The book includes essays by Sandra Day O'Connor, Alan Dershowitz, Peter Levine (Director of CIRCLE), Michael Kazin, Harry Lewis (dean of Harvard College 1995-2003, currently professor at Harvard), Charles Quigley and Charles Bahmueller from the Center for Civic Education, Andrew Rotherham (former special assistant to President Clinton, co-founder of Bellwether Education, Rod Paige (former Secretary of Education), and Senators Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) and Bob Graham (D-Fl) among others. The volume is edited by David Feith of the Wall Street Journal.

The second book is What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story Speech, and Song (ISI Press, 2011) , a broad collection of writings about America from such divergent authors as George Washington, Ralph Ellison, Mark Twain, Philip Roth, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, W.E. B. DuBois, Calvin Coolidge, Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. The book is edited by Amy Kass, Leon Kass, and Diana Schaub.