Why the new K-12 Draft Social Studies Standards are wrong for DC students
Should DC second-graders be required to “analyze the daily lives of different individuals in ancient societies including history of same-sex relationships and gender fluidity in civilizations” and “compare societies of long ago to societies today with a focus on gender roles, technology, and relationship with the natural environment?” Should high school students be expected to “explain the historical context of ‘Eurocentrism’ and the lasting social, political, and economic impacts on countries and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean of sources from the past?”
If the State Board of Education (SBOE) adopts the Draft Social Studies Standards, all DC K-12 public and charter school students will be force-fed this kind of witch's brew. The new Social Studies Standards were surely motivated by the legislature’s commendable efforts to include diverse perspectives and experiences that have been historically minimized or ignored. However, the Draft Social Studies Standards as presently constructed goes much further than this, and if adopted will end up being more harmful and regressive than instructive.
Three primary concerns come to mind while reading these standards.
First, contrary to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideal world where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, the Draft Standards reduce the extraordinary variety of human associations to a simplistic binary of Good versus Evil, or the oppressed and the oppressors. The oppressed are the helpless victims of European subjugation—essentialized as Indigenous (103 times) or BIPOC (4 times) people—and the oppressors are the murderous “Europeans” (62 times), and, by implication, the first American colonists and their descendants. For example, students are repeatedly required to “evaluate the experiences of [...] life [...] from the perspectives of Indigenous Nations and European,” suggesting that there cannot be a common life between Europeans and Indigenous peoples, and that each of these groups of people can be said to have a single, unified perspective. Similarly, students are expected to “[e]xplain the historical context of “Eurocentrism” and the lasting social, political, and economic impacts on countries and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean and our understanding of sources from the past.”
Second, the Draft Standards present controversial views as historical facts. Expressly framed, under their Guiding Principles in Critical Race Theory, they state explicitly that the authors of the Standards were operating according to the assumption that social studies is best defined as “the study of power and bias.” This, at the very least, is a stark departure from how most ordinary Americans were taught social studies in school, and would therefore be a questionable assumption to many DC parents. This “power and bias” social studies lens shows up in the Standards’ framing of history as a zero-sum power struggle between oppressed and oppressor groups. Many historians do not agree with this view of history, and it is irresponsible to teach students that this is simply how history is studied today.
Relatedly, the Draft Standards impose the lens of anachronistic postmodern concepts onto the study of premodern societies. Students are given the misleading impression that non-European premodern societies shared the same liberal cosmopolitan values that are popular among certain segments of America today. For example, second graders are required to consider “gender roles” in Rome, Aksum or Ancient China and to discuss the role of “gender fluidity” in pre-modern societies.
Finally, the Draft Standards present us with a strange paradox. There is an overwhelming emphasis on topics that are “global,” a word that appears an astonishing 132 times throughout the Standards. Yet there is very little mention local DC social studies topics, and the few times these are mentioned appears only superficial and largely under a social justice framing. Whatever one may think of the abstract idea of a global citizenry, the civic life of ordinary citizens remains structured around local communities federated under nation states. This is particularly true in the context of an extremely diverse, continent-wide nation such as the United-States, emphasizing the overarching importance of studying local and American topics as the foundation of a common life. Similarly, one may also question the uncritical use, in one of the seventh grades standards of the oxymoron “global communities” or on what basis second graders are expected to “identify a current question of sustainability and develop an action plan for increasing sustainability in your community or globally” (emphasis added). The transfer of decision-making power over people’s daily lives to largely unelected, unaccountable international bodies and gigantic multinational corporations—the end product of an emphasis on “global citizenry”—has had the effect of weakening trust in all institutions. Perhaps it is time for a re-centering of educational standards on the local and the national, not a further dilution into the abstract idea of the global.
In February 1943, while Britain was still fighting for its survival against Nazi Germany, C.S. Lewis gave a series of lectures that would later be published as his short book The Abolition of Man. Oddly, the gravest peril that Lewis warned his audience against did not come from the German bombs, but from an education textbook, The Green Book, which claimed to “debunk” all traditional values, and had the goal of transforming “mankind” into an object “to be cut into some fresh shape at will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people.” The practical effect of education according to The Green Book, wrote Lewis, must be the destruction of the society which accepts it. Never have Lewis’ words carried a stronger sense of urgency than now.