“History is the study of change,” board member Donna Tipton-Rogers said Wednesday at a meeting. “And by adopting these new social studies standards, we are embracing the essence of what makes the study of history useful and our nation great.”
Several members of the school board have criticized those guidelines as falling within an “anti-democratic” and “anti-capitalist” framework that overemphasizes the nation’s sins in comparison to its victories. Board member Todd Chasteen said lessons about discrimination against minorities should be accompanied by discussions of the dangers of “destructive” forms of government, including fascism and communism.
“Discrimination and oppression must be covered, and it will be,” he said at the meeting. “Yet the last thing I want to do is mislead students to think the U.S. is hopelessly bigoted, irredeemable and much worse than most nations — unless that were true, but I don’t believe it is.”
The last round of controversy over the guidelines centered on a debate about whether they should refer to “gender identity” and call racism and discrimination “systemic.” After officials removed the words “systemic” and “gender,” two board members on Thursday advocated unsuccessfully for restoring them.
Under the new standards, set to take effect in the fall, students will learn about how people have “demonstrated resistance and resilience to inequities, injustice, and discrimination” in the United States and compare competing historical narratives in the context of how they depict different racial groups, women and others.
Long-contentious debates over how to teach U.S. history have become more fierce in recent months as conversations about racial justice have gained traction, propelled in part by the Black Lives Matter movement. Passions flared around “The 1619 Project,” an expansive piece of journalism by the New York Times that centers slavery in American history and won a Pulitzer Prize.
The project expanded to include a free school curriculum, and several Republican-led states launched efforts to ban it from classrooms. In the waning days of his presidency, Donald Trump released a “1776 Commission” report that he said would restore “patriotic education” to schools but that many historians called error-ridden and partisan.
Others, including many young people, have argued for a more extensive examination of racism’s role in U.S. history. President Biden removed the 1776 report from the White House website on his first day in office.
Some North Carolina school board members pointed to that cultural context to support their argument that the new social studies standards promote an anti-American understanding of the past. The concepts outlined in the guidelines come from a “very radical ideology” that the U.S. is a fundamentally racist nation, board member Amy White said at the Wednesday meeting.
Other members said the standards should put more emphasis on the progress that the nation has made in advancing beyond the Jim Crow era.
Board member James Ford rejected the assertion that anything short of “unquestioning adoration” for the U.S. is unpatriotic.
“The flawless, exceptionalist characterization of our country is well-represented in our education,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting. “The necessity of making an effort to teach unpopular history is self-evident.”
In North Carolina, that disfavored history includes two centuries of slavery, a significant contribution of troops to the Confederacy and several notable battles in the state toward the end of the Civil War. North Carolina is now a swing state where ideological disagreements play out over how much to focus on those parts of its past.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, supports the new social studies standards because they seek to educate students “about our great country’s history that includes injustices that linger still today,” his spokesperson, Dory MacMillan, said in a statement.
But Cooper’s second-in-command, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, has criticized the guidelines and circulated a petition that he said garnered signatures from 30,000 people opposed to the changes.
Tension over the opposition from him and other Republicans on the school board came into sharp relief on Tuesday when local television station WRAL published an editorial cartoon depicting them as Ku Klux Klan members. Robinson castigated the illustration at a news conference, and the station defended the image as “creative and provocative, using hyperbole and satire.”
The controversy did not affect Robinson’s continued opposition to the revisions. He called the new guidelines “leftist indoctrination” after Thursday’s vote, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.
“Let me be clear,” Robinson said in a statement, according to the newspaper. “This is not over. I will continue to lead the fight to ensure that our students are educated, not indoctrinated.”
A preamble attached to the standards by State Superintendent Catherine Truitt (R) stakes out a middle ground. The state school board believes that social studies lessons should reflect the nation’s diversity, she wrote.
“This means teaching the hard truths of Native American oppression, anti-Catholicism, exploitation of child labor, and Jim Crow to name a few,” the preamble says, “while simultaneously teaching that the US Constitution created the world’s first organized democracy since ancient Rome and that 90 years into our country’s history, President Lincoln ended the United States’ participation in what had been more than 9,000 years of legalized slavery and human bondage in most parts of the world.”