Far from the classroom, an intense but nearly invisible battle is being waged for the hearts and minds of Minnesota's schoolchildren.

The fight is over how history and other social studies topics will be taught, long a flashpoint for political strife in Minnesota.

At issue is the state Department of Education's proposed revision of social studies standards -- a massive overhaul two years in the making.

An administrative law judge will decide whether schools can teach the new standards beginning this fall.

Critics say the new standards favor an "America the Ugly" narrative of U.S. history. They say there is too much focus on slavery and oppression of American Indians and too little on "American exceptionalism," the nation's inherent greatness and God-given rights as laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

Meanwhile, social studies teachers see a conservative attempt to "indoctrinate students with ideological and religious values."

As was the case during the controversy surrounding the Profile of Learning standards in the 1990s, which launched the career of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota cares a lot about how history, economics, geography and civics are taught in K-12 classrooms.

"If we don't understand -- if our students and children don't understand -- the basic workings of our republic, it won't be there for very long," said Karen Effrem, president of Education Liberty Watch, which has led the charge against the new standards.

Profs v. politicos

Social studies teachers like Bob Ihrig of Mankato see the battle as one of professional research vs. narrow political viewpoints. Ihrig told Administrative Law Judge Barbara Neilson, who will decide whether the revised standards can go forward, that the critics would "move away from the professional factual domain to an effort to indoctrinate students with ideological and religious values."

Beth Aune, the state Education Department's director of academic standards, defends the revision, which she said favors research and expertise over religious texts and special interests. "It is impossible to create state standards without some level of controversy,'' she said.

In Minnesota and across the country, debates over academic standards have become intense battles of competing ideas and the framing of the American story for the next generation.

When Bachmann began agitating against the Profile standards in the early 1990s, she was an unknown Stillwater education activist. By 2003, she was a Minnesota state senator who helped kill the standards. The long political battle ended with a legislative compromise under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty that produced new standards in 2004 that Profile critics found more acceptable.

Other states have had their own struggles. A 2010 debate over standards in Texas produced a document that dismissed the separation of church and state and all but eliminated discussion of native peoples and slavery, according to a history standards analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research and advocacy group. The institute finds fault with both ends of the political spectrum in these debates.

Minnesota's existing History and Social Studies Academic Standards spans 80 pages and breaks down the main subject areas -- history, geography, economics and citizenship -- into goals for students to master at various grade-levels.

The proposed revision, at 146 pages, covers the same topics and is the result of committees of social studies teachers and topic area experts. (View both documents at www.startribune.com/a2018.)

Rights and Exceptionalism

But Julie Quist, an education activist and Bachmann ally whose work goes back to the Profile debate, wrote that the revised standards still fall short. In particular, she said, inalienable rights -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- "are almost completely erased from existence" in the revision. Effrem said that is a major departure.

"Those are inherent, God-given rights as opposed to granted by a government entity," Effrem said. She and other critics want this distinction made crystal-clear in the standards.

Aune said the standards refer numerous times to those rights without "talking about the sources of those rights... That's the purview of parents. If they want to talk about God granting certain rights, they certainly can do that."

Both sides agree the new standards go deeper on such issues as slavery and exploitation of American Indians. That is as it should be, said veteran social studies teacher Eric Beckman of Anoka High School.

Beckman said he does not want to teach "a sanitized view of American history," which in itself would be "a kind of political correctness." Several tribal educators sent letters of support for the new standards, saying the standards are an "attempt to remedy the invisibility of American Indian students."

Aune said that "American exceptionalism," the concept that the United States serves a unique role in the world, is generally a positive portrayal of American history, government and economy. She said the committee "decided to have a balanced narrative of the American story.... That means calling attention to progress as well as setbacks in the American story."

A national critic of Minnesota's standards, John Fonte, wrote a critique for National Review Online titled "America the Ugly." State Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, suggested that the standards "promote an anti-American world view." Marjorie Holsten, of Education Liberty Watch, told the judge the new standards have "an incredibly out-of-balance emphasis on the concept of America as an oppressive culture with an almost obsessive focus on racism, slavery and the wrongs done to indigeneous peoples."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-discrimination group with a liberal history, gave the Minnesota standards (along with those of most states) an "F" for failing to spell out specifics and heroes of the civil rights movement. The center preferred the 2004 standards, which it said were far more specific and detailed. Aune said the revision focuses on general concepts, not specific figures and events.

Teaching moment

Former Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who is not involved in the current dispute, said a reasonable balance can be struck that recognizes the greatness of the American system and its people and the many unresolved problems, which should not be ignored.

"I'm very proud of our country. I think our country is a miracle," said the former Republican legislator who was appointed commissioner by a Republican governor. "I don't think our kids know enough about that, and the miracle of how this country was created."

But, she said, "there are also things that have happened in our country that we shouldn't be proud of, that we also should know about so that we can learn from our mistakes."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042