Nearly a decade ago, the Minnesota Department of Education thoroughly revised the social-studies standards for K-12 public schools. Largely a response to the much-reviled Profiles of Learning, these new standards sought to beef up content and drastically reduce the busywork that was so prominent under the Profiles -- and so frustrating to both teachers and students.
Today, the department is about the business of somewhat revising the social-studies standards. "Tweaking" might be the right word. At least, that's the hope of those doing the tweaking, since significant alterations would require the approval of the Legislature. So tweaking it is.
Or is it?
Since I'm an American historian, I'll confine my comments to what might happen to the study of American history in Minnesota's high school classrooms once the existing standards have been properly tweaked. "Might happen" is the operative phrase. The entire matter is before an administrative law judge, who must decide whether the department's tweaks rise to the level of revision that demands legislative sanction.
It's worth noting that the 2004 standards were approved by the Legislature. In addition, those standards were the result of a consensus effort on the part of liberals and conservatives. One of its goals suggested that students should learn of the sacrifices that previous generations of Americans made to "win and keep liberty."
Is such a goal necessarily conservative or liberal? It shouldn't be either. The 2004 standards deemed "patriotism" a core civic value. Is this something that only liberals -- or only conservatives -- would believe? Hardly.
The proposed new standards also include a lengthy list of "civic values." Curiously, patriotism is not one of them. There are references to "civic life in the 21st century," but few specific references to American citizenship, much less to its history and obligations. Are such tweakings (revisions?) designed to take the standards in a liberal or a conservative direction?
Matters of specific historical content are even more telling and troubling. The drafters of the 2004 standards placed great emphasis on the Declaration of Independence, and its "inalienable rights and self-evident truths." The new standards simply list the Declaration as one of a number of things to analyze in studying the American Revolution. Its centrality to our revolution is minimized, and its impact on "subsequent revolutions in Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America" is heightened.
Differences between the 2004 standards and its updated version are also apparent when it comes to the Civil War. In 2004, the causes, conduct and consequences of that war are central. In the tweaked standards, the Civil War is treated almost as an interlude lost in the midst of the larger 19th-century story of American expansion and the conquest of "indigenous and Mexican territory."
The post-Civil War story offers a few curious contrasts as well. The 2004 standards are thorough, straightforward and balanced in their treatment of such crucial phenomena as urbanization, industrialization, immigration and racial segregation. The new standards stress the "rise of big business" and the implementation of "institutional racism."
Gone from the late 19th-century story is the role of "key inventions" in improving American life. In its place is an emphasis on the "intensified boom and bust cycles in an unregulated capitalist economy."
The 2004 standards asked students to assess the causes of the Great Depression, as well as "demonstrate knowledge of how the New Deal transformed American federalism." The tweaked standards presume that "economic growth and political apathy" led to the Great Depression, which in turn "spurred new forms of government intervention."
The origins and importance of the Cold War are highlighted in the 2004 standards. Not so in the tweaked document. Gone are such key events as the imposition of the Iron Curtain, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Instead, students will be comparing and contrasting market and command economies and their "associated political ideologies" by way of how both "contributed to the development of the Cold War." Gone are specific decisions by key actors; instead the stress is on vague historical forces.
The same can be said about the end of the Cold War. In the 2004 standards, it was thought important that students should know the political and economic policies of the United States that "contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union." There is even a reference to President Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech. In the new standards, there is no reference to a Soviet Union, collapsed or otherwise, and therefore no suggestion that American policies may have contributed to its demise.
Worse than that is the new treatment of current American conflicts in the Middle East or, more accurately, the absence thereof. The 2004 standards specifically mention 9/11, both Iraq wars and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. All of this has been entirely tweaked out of the new standards. It's as though the end of history really did arrive with the end of the Cold War. Apparently, Minnesota students living in a post-Cold War world need only to be able to "evaluate the United States's global economic connections and interdependence with other countries."
It's one thing to water down content (which the 2012 tweaking has done). It's another thing to tilt the American story in a left-liberal direction (which is also being done). But it's downright Orwellian to toss the ongoing war on terror down the memory hole.
Then again, perhaps we should be thankful that our high school students are at least not being required to see the long arm of American empire in the Middle East. Tweaking apparently does have its limits.
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John C. ( Chuck) Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.