In the summer of 2004, just 17 years ago, a state legislator from Chicago took the podium at the Democratic National Convention and put America on notice that a new political force was rising.
"I stand here today," declared Barack Obama, "grateful for the diversity of my heritage … knowing that my story is part of the larger American story … and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible … . There is not a Black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America — there's the United States of America … ."
It was patriotic stuff, corny even. Yet it still captured a reasonably popular sentiment at the time about America's exceptionalism and unifying ideals. And of course Obama made his vision of an undivided America look pretty good just four years later by getting himself elected as a Black president in a predominantly white nation.
But this is not the exactly the vision of America that Minnesota schoolchildren are going to be taught under the current version of the state's updated and much-debated social studies standards — for history, civics, etc. — being developed by the Minnesota Department of Education as what it calls "statewide expectations for student learning in K-12 public schools."
I've been reading the second draft of those guidelines, upon which public comment ends Monday. And the history lesson I've learned in the process is that 2004 was a long time ago when it comes to America's feelings about itself.
Not that there's anything new about controversy over social studies standards. Fact is, 2004 also was the year a Minnesota education commissioner named Cheri Yecke, appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was ousted from her job by state Senate Democrats, largely over displeasure with a new set of social studies standards Yecke had been pushing.
Yecke's standards, critics complained back then, "placed too heavy an emphasis on a politically conservative, white-male view of the way the world works," the Star Tribune reported.
Worse, Yecke's standards constituted "state-approved happy talk — a mom, the flag and apple pie approach to our national story," as my late, great liberal columnist colleague Nick Coleman put it.
Seventeen years later, overheated controversy has boiled around whether the newly updated standards peddle something called "critical race theory" — a highfalutin term for a school of rarefied academic radicalism. Coleman's plainer language helps clarify things, as it often did.
I mean that in 2021 parents can rest assured that Minnesota schoolkids will henceforth be protected from the ravages of "happy talk." In fact, if the state's stern new standards remain unchanged, pupils may be safe from Obama's hopeful 2004 vision of "one American family."
In Minnesota schools, under these standards, it seems students will be expected to learn that what each of us perceives about nearly everything is shaped by "dominant" and "absent" "narratives"; by one's "positionality"; by stories being "marginalized, erased or ignored"; by "social policies and economic forces [that] offer privilege or systematic oppressions for racial/ethnic groups"; and by "personal identity including, but not limited to [emphasis added], region, race, language, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion and ability."
And, well, more.
Meanwhile, in place of "state-approved happy talk" these standards provide what might be called a state-approved rap sheet for America and Minnesota.
Let me pause here to acknowledge that many educational expectations and benchmarks in this large document seem sound and impartial enough, particularly in civics and economics. Some of the standards' outspoken critics say this second draft shows improvement in response to earlier public critiques. Readers need not and ought not take my word, or anyone else's, for what the standards are like, but should spend some time with them and decide for themselves.
All that said, the standards taken as whole do seem to have an agenda, conveying a sense that injustice and exploitation in many forms, and most especially that suffered by Native Americans, are the central facts of our society's story, the most important thing for students to understand from their social studies.
No sensible person would deny that these are large and painful parts of the truth about America and Minnesota, deserving ample attention. But at the same time, the suffering of the weak at the hands of the strong is a universal sorrow of human history, not a uniquely American evil.
America's aspiration has always been to secure the rights of individuals more fully than in other times and places, through limited and democratic government, the rule of law, economic opportunity and all the rest. It has often fallen short, and those failures, especially given the nation's ideals, must be examined.
But if America were more exceptional as a land of oppression than as one of opportunity, it would seem odd that even now waves of immigrants, legal and illegal, ardently seek to inflict American life on themselves — that in this country we debate building a wall to keep people out, rather than needing one to keep people in.
Nearly everyone who has engaged in this debate has called for balance in what we teach schoolchildren about America and its past. But, of course, our "positionality" affects what we think balance looks like.
As I've said, the standards are a big, complex document. For what light it sheds, keyword searches of its 168 PDF pages show that the words indigenous, native, tribal and related terms turn up more than 200 times. "Minnesota" arises 86 times. German, Irish, Norwegian and Swedish do not appear. English comes up twice.
The word oppression gets 44 mentions, one more than democracy. Power, discrimination, dispossession and genocide combine for more than 100 appearances; freedom rings 31 times.
Much about social studies, along with a nation's sense of itself, is not exact science, but the stuff of interpretation, emphasis and aspiration for the future. Common sense through the ages reminds us to be careful of what we say around children. If these standards reflect what the Minnesota public believes public schools should convey to the next generation, so be it.
As noted, the period for public comment, which can be offered through the education department website, continues through Aug. 16.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.