After some spirited back-and-forth, the Nebraska State Board of Education has adopted new standards for Social Studies instruction. Now, it will be up to local school boards to adopt or strengthen, and implement them.
The Board adopted the standards last week. But the discussion, which has been going on for a year, seems likely to continue.
Social Studies standards define what Nebraska school children should know at various grade levels about history, geography, civics and economics.
Before last week’s vote, Rev. Val Peter, former director of Boys Town, urged the board not to adopt the new standards. “Education is too important to be left to the educators. And I’m one of them,” Rev. Peter said. “What I ask you to do is…to put back our traditions, our hopes, our dreams, our free enterprise system. Exceptionalism. We really are exceptional.”
Different ideas of American exceptionalism have been offered through the years.
In the 19th century, French writer Alexis de Toqueville suggested America was exceptional because its people were “commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World,” compared to other English-speaking people who could devote their energies to thought.
In the 20th century, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin called a claim that Americans weren’t interested in revolution the “heresy of American exceptionalism.”
In this century, former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has said America is exceptional because it’s the only country founded on the idea that power and inalienable rights come from God to people personally.
Nebraska Department of Education officials said because of a lack of agreement on what the words mean, an outside reviewer suggested the standards not use the term “American exceptionalism.”
Donlynn Rice, the department’s administrator of curriculum, instruction and innovation, said the new standards respond to peoples’ desire for references to the Founding Fathers and founding documents, and now go farther. “We also have added the wording ‘the unique nature of the creation and organization of the American Government, the United States as an exceptional nation based on personal freedom, the inherent nature of citizens’ rights, and democratic ideals,’” Rice said.
A coalition of groups critical of the new standards suggested its own version. Peggy Sigler, spokesperson for the conservative Liberty Education Advocacy Coalition, says “American exceptionalism” is really a distraction from the need to follow a Nebraska law on Americanism. “Our children need to understand our constitutional form of government. They also need to be carefully educated on other systems of government. And they also need to be shown the benefits of our government vs. specific other items that are mentioned, like socialism, communism, Nazism, etc.,” she said.
Sigler was referring to a law passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 1949 that requires schools to teach “the benefits and advantages of our form of government and the dangers and fallacies of Nazism, Communism, and similar ideologies.”
“That statute came in shortly after World War II. Our citizens knew what World War II was fighting against,” Sigler said.
The United States and the communist Soviet Union were allies in fighting Nazi Germany during World War II. But by the time the statute was adopted four years later, the Cold War had begun and the United States was opposing the communist superpower.
Sigler says the Americanism statute isn’t being enforced. Education officials including Assistant Commissioner Brian Halstead said while it’s primarily a local responsibility, it is being followed.
Commissioner Roger Breed says education needs to be kept current.
“One can argue that there are parts of that law that seem a little out of date at this time, but I think we always have to remember that the law is in place, and it stays in place until changed…by the same token, the Americanism statute does not deal with radical Islamists and terrorism as a tool of policy, so to speak, that perhaps we should include.” That’s part of the reason to review and update standards, he added.
Another change made to the standards involves climate change. In an earlier draft, it was described as an “issue” to be evaluated. The final version calls for evaluation of “recent climate change theories, and evidence that supports and refutes such theories.” The Department of Education’s Donlynn Rice said the new language is a good change.
“It does speak to the idea that there is a theory of climate change out there now. There may be some that believe it’s a theory. There may be some that believe it isn’t happening at all,” she said. “We feel by having these words written the way it is, it promotes the idea that it is something that should be talked about in schools, and students should be looking at evidence that both supports and refutes the theory. So we feel it’s a nice compromise.”
The left-leaning Mother Jones magazine mocked the changes in the standards with a headline “Nebraska Kids to Learn America Is Awesome, Climate Change is Just a Theory.” But Nebraska Board of Education member John Sieler takes comfort
in some of the criticism the standards have received. ”One of the things that makes me the most comfortable (is) the process is being criticized from both sides – the left and the right. And so maybe we’ve done something good,” he said.
The adoption of the standards doesn’t mean controversy over what the schools teach on these subjects will end. Peggy Sigler of the Liberty Education Advocacy Coalition said that group will continue to study the standards, and insist the Americanism law be followed. “I assure you the members of LEAC will do every available political and legal remedy to enforce the statutes,” she said.
Editor’s note: By way of full disclosure, Education Commissioner Roger Breed is a member of the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission, one of NET’s governing bodies.