How the politicization of history education led to Michigan’s fall 

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Are nonexperts with political agendas being given too much power in state-level educational decision making?

 

Through the 1980s, Michigan’s educational system was ranked in the top half of the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Since then, however, its rankings have declined steadily. By 2003, for example, the state’s 4th-grade NAEP reading scores had dropped to 28th, by 2015 they had fallen to 41st, and Michigan is predicted to fall to 48th by 2030 (Higgins, 2016).  

The many reasons for this decline include underfunding, weakened teachers unions, an overreliance on testing, under-regulated charter schools, and a backlash against public schools in general — all issues that are not unique to Michigan. However, our home state does stand out in one way: Michigan’s education debate has become hyper-politicized (perhaps more so than in any other part of the country), which has fomented a dramatic shift in power away from educators and into the hands of a few state officials who have little or no experience in schools.  

Nowhere has this shift been more dramatic, and more visible, than in debates about the teaching of history and social studies.  

Revised standards cause controversy 

In 1997, Gary Nash published a sobering account of the political firestorm that had engulfed the History Standards Project (a federally funded effort to create national K-12 standards for this subject area) a couple of years earlier. Nash and his colleagues pointed out in a subsequent edition (2000) that “[t]he controversy in the United States over the National History Standards was also an expression of a country’s historical image of itself and the intertwinings of public memory with national purpose” (p. xvi). In a nutshell, this observation helps to explain how the history standards in Michigan have become embroiled in debate about what views of the past should be communicated to young people. Different political perspectives clearly shape public memories and national purposes. 

In Michigan, those tensions have taken on a new and disturbing tenor. As academics and social studies educators who have worked for the Michigan Department of Education, we hope to shed some light on this power shift by examining the history of the state’s social studies content expectations (as standards are called in the state) over the past decade. 

In 2005-06, one of us, Wilson Warren, was the Michigan Council for History Education’s representative on the Michigan Department of Education’s committee to revise the state’s content expectations (its standards, in effect) for social studies. His primary role was to advise the committee on ways to expand the guidelines for U.S. history. At the time, Michigan’s social studies content expectations were quite brief, and mainly described broad themes students should study. Other than giving some examples and illustrations, they did little to specify the precise content to be learned.  

During this period, Karen Todorov, the social studies consultant for the state, led the committee and organized its efforts. Part of her charge to the revision committee was to update the content expectations with additional examples that might be taught in each of the social studies areas. In turn, Warren made a few proposals to flesh out the study of major developments in U.S. history, such as a suggestion that units on World War II include attention to women’s wartime roles — for example, he said, students might learn about Rosie the Riveter (see photo). 

In June 2006, when the document outlining the revised content expectations was submitted to the state board of education for review and approval, one former board member, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Warren, Jr., responded with scathing criticism, claiming that “[t]here is little history in the (proposed) history content.” According to one newspaper report, Judge Warren worried that in units on World War II, teachers would focus on “Rosie the Riveter and the U.S. bombing of Japan” instead of “the defeat of fascism and Japanese imperialism and the ascendancy of America in the world” (“Controversy swirls,” 2006). He seems to have assumed that if important people and events were not specifically named in this document, then teachers would neglect them. However, the committee’s charge was only to provide examples of topics that teachers might consider addressing in addition to the examples already included in the state’s history content expectations.  

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Whatever his misunderstandings of the document’s intentions, Judge Warren made great political hay out of his warning that Rosie the Riveter would crowd out other topics. Further, he lambasted Todorov for striking the use of the terms America and American from the document. Among historians, it has become common practice to avoid using the word America to refer only to the United States, given that the American continents include many countries. But Judge Warren and others attacked this move as “un-American” (“Mount Clemens takes a stand,” 2006), disregarding the intentions of the standards committee. 

In July 2006, the controversy over supposed left-leaning bias in the Michigan Department of Education resulted in the removal of Todorov from her position. Additionally, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Michael Flanagan, decided to delay publication of the new social studies content expectations until a new committee could thoroughly review and revamp them. One year later, a new content expectations document enormously expanded the specific content that would be taught in all classes and grade levels (“Will plan for social studies survive?” 2007). 

In the meantime, Judge Warren embarked on a wide-ranging effort to promote his own ideas about the teaching of U.S. history. One result was his 2007 self-publication of America’s Survival Guide: How to Stop America’s Impending Suicide by Reclaiming our First Principles and History, a book that primarily focuses on essential first principles of American constitutional republicanism. He also founded Patriot Week in 2009, anchored by 9/11 and Constitution Day. In 2010, various communities and groups sponsored talks, movies, and ceremonies associated with Patriot Week. Events included a Pledge of Allegiance, opening prayer, introduction by Judge Warren, a keynote address by John Todd (professor of political science and business law at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Mich., and decorated war veteran) on “What is patriotism and why is it important today?” and a question-and-answer session with Birmingham, Mich., middle and high school students. One of Judge Warren’s talks was titled “The importance and meaning of our first historical flags.” According to press coverage of the event, “The goal of Patriot Week is to renew the American spirit by focusing on education to revive appreciation and understanding of American history” (“Patriot Week events,” 2010, p. 2). 

Judge Warren, recipient of a bachelor’s in history from Wayne State University in addition to his juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School, had now established himself as a go-to source for statewide newspapers in any discussion of history in Michigan’s schools. He garnered tremendous newspaper coverage in the 2006-2010 period, especially in connection with the social studies standards. However, his view of history conflates history with patriotic boosterism. Instead of taking a critical approach to the subject, as good history teachers stress, he unabashedly supports a view of history as flag waving, an approach that tends to close down discussion instead of opening it up.  

Another try with ESSA 

Fast forward to 2014, when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) prompted the Michigan Department of Education to encourage state social studies organizations, including the Michigan Council for History Education, to form committees to recommend revisions of no more than 10% of the already approved social studies content expectations. To go beyond simple revisions required legislative action, and there was no political will in either the House or the Senate to pass the needed legislation. 

Gordon Andrews (this article’s coauthor), the Michigan Council for History Education’s executive director and lead representative on the revision committee, wanted the revisions to address important historiographical gaps in such areas as women’s history, the civil rights movement, indigenous peoples, and underrepresented minorities. However, this one-year minor revision project is now in its fourth year — a fact that deserves explanation: While the social studies writers worked diligently to keep the changes to 10%, two individuals, State Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Judge Warren, used the opportunity to address deeper issues they had with the standards, disregarding the original charge. Effectively, this meant that the writers had to continually address and resubmit standards to the satisfaction of a small but influential cadre. 

Colbeck, who represents the 7th District in Michigan, has been a leading critic of the current round of social studies revisions and, as a former member of the Education Committee (Gray, 2017), has demanded that key changes be made to the revised standards. His many criticisms appear on his website (Colbeck, 2015), but we will address only a few of the more dangerous and educationally detrimental demands.  

One of Colbeck’s first complaints about the new revisions relates to the use of the term American democracy, which he says should be replaced with the term constitutional republic (Colbeck, 2015), a change that ignores the evolutionary historical tradition that students of U.S. history ought to understand. Constitutional republics are, by definition, representative democracies (in which elected officials are empowered to make policy decisions on voters’ behalf) and do not allow for direct democracy (in which people can cast their own votes on referendums, ballot initiatives, and other means of making policy decisions). However, the term American democracy is more inclusive and (because it encompasses the practice of direct democracy) accurate. In fact, eight states, including Michigan, allow citizens to participate in some popular forms of direct democracy, including the recall of elected officials. We suspect Colbeck’s supporters find these forms of direct democracy unpalatable, but, whatever their reasons, the desire to alter the nomenclature reveals a fundamental misunderstanding. 

Many Americans have been taught, incorrectly, that the Constitution established a “republican” form of government in emphatic contradistinction to a “democratic” one; that the framing generation associated a republic with the idea of filtered, representative government, as opposed to more direct modes of popular participation; and that the founders loathed the ideal of direct democracy. But these lessons need to be unlearned if we are to understand the Constitution in general and the Article IV republican-form-of-government clause in particular (Reed Amar, 2005, p. 276). The fact of the matter is that the terms republican and democracy were interchangeable in the founding era, as James Madison explicitly acknowledged (Reed Amar, 2005, pp. 276-277). Many of the founders were well versed in history and understood that Greek city states that practiced direct democracy frequently referred to themselves as republics (Reed Amar, 2005, pp. 276-277). In short, Colbeck is simply wrong to assert that students should be taught that the U.S. is a “constitutional republic.”  

Colbeck also expressed concerns about the emphasis on “civic activism” in grades K-8. He proposes instead to “[l]imit ‘Citizen Involvement’ sections for Grades K through 8 to teaching students the importance of understanding the law and abiding by the law” (Colbeck, 2015). His concern that we not teach community activism before students understand the law rings hollow when one remembers the profound moment when Black children entered the civil rights movement, facing attack dogs, hostile police, and fire hoses to secure the full rights of citizens. The involvement of children fundamentally changed the trajectory of civil rights in America. 

Also perplexing is Colbeck’s recommendation to “remove all references to ‘justice’ outside of the context of our legal system and remove all references to ‘common good’” (Colbeck, 2015). Apparently, his objection stemmed from a report card released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that graded states on the status of civil rights education (Hinkley, 2015) — it gave Michigan an F. Partly in response to the SPLC’s criticism, the members of the Michigan Council for History Education’s revision committee called upon the schools to give attention to some key civil rights developments. Reacting to one of these revisions, Colbeck made the request to “Remove references to gays and lesbians and other members of the LGBT community” in section C8.3.4 of the standards. He also asserted that the SPLC is a “hate group” and that it is objectionable to the people in his district to apply “terms such as ‘justice’ and ‘common good’ to various objectives in the new standards.” He went on to clarify that  

[t]he term “justice” is regularly extended by social activists beyond holding citizens responsible for compliance with our laws, to refer to abstract concepts such as “social justice” or “environmental justice” that serve as springboards for socialism. The term “common good” attempts to extend the protection of individual rights delineated in our Constitution to arbitrary groups and serves as the springboard for communism. (Colbeck, 2015) 

Of course, the SPLC is not a hate group, the terms justice and common good have no intrinsic link to communism, and the notion that historians and teachers would remove all references to these concepts is absurd on its face. This would mean, for example, removing mention of important historical events, such as movements by workers for economic justice during the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras, censoring many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words (e.g., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”), and deleting references to environmental justice, which have often been invoked by Michigan residents who live near the “coke breeze” on the Detroit River. 

There is plenty of room for disagreement on which topics to emphasize and what language to use in discussions of social studies education, but we worry about ceding the power to make these decisions to nonexperts. 

Heed the experts 

No one involved in the process of revising Michigan history content expectations doubts Colbeck’s intelligence — he is an aerospace engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan. However, it is hard to imagine that if aerospace engineering guidelines were open to public debate, citizens would want input from representatives of the Michigan Council for History Education. We wonder why a person with political influence in the legislature but no expertise in the field of history education has the ability to veto the decisions of experts and academics trained in that very same field. 

There is plenty of room for disagreement on which topics to emphasize and what language to use in discussions of social studies education. Consider, for example, the revisions to the Advanced Placement frameworks for U.S. and European history (Hess, 2018; Littlefield, 2015). The process around the AP framework shows that it is possible to address multiple views when revising standards, even if some of the more politically driven critics remained unsatisfied.  

We worry, though, that the power to make curricular decisions increasingly is being ceded to politically motivated nonexperts. Further, we worry that many of those decision makers, in many parts of the country, are willing to approve distorted versions of history.  

For instance, as reported in the Washington Post (Sieff, 2010), Our Virginia, a 4th-grade textbook, was found to contain the historically inaccurate assertion that there were “two battalions of black soldiers under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” When College of William and Mary historian Carol Sheriff viewed her daughter’s copy and saw the reference to Black Confederate soldiers, she voiced her concerns: “It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship.” Sheriff’s point regarding the use of accepted scholarship is particularly instructive for states like Michigan, which ignore the research of experts in the field. 

We believe the challenges around history standards in Michigan are a symptom of a nationwide trend of anti-democratic and anti-historical forces that are moving to stifle well-established historical understandings, shift power away from teachers and content experts, and move it into the hands of a few politically and powerfully connected individuals who want to change the history content expectations to suit their own agendas. Fritz Fischer (2017) has identified such people as anti-historians, that is, “politically motivated activist[s] seeking to teach the past as political ideology rather than following well-established rules for seeking to understand the past” (p. 208). 

A thin veneer of democracy exists in Michigan and across the country today, and we believe that the remedy is more participation, more voices of the underrepresented, and more professional engagement from teachers and academics in the K-16 community to help restore some balance and good sense (Warren, Andrews, & Cousins, 2017). Certainly, the teaching of history provides fodder for vigorous public debate around what to emphasize and what messages we want our young people to hear. But when these disputes arise, the ideal solution is for experts in education and history to work together to achieve a common understanding. When nonexpert, politically motivated voices take control of the process, we lose the opportunity to give students a proper education in these important ideas.   

 

References 

Colbeck, P. (2015). Table 1. Analysis of proposed MI social studies standards. www.senatorpatrickcolbeck.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/New-Standards-Review-Table.pdf 

Controversy swirls around what to teach in U.S. history. (2006, July 2). Flint Journal.  

Fischer, F. (2017). Teaching revolution, reform, and rebellion (and those who would seek to prevent it). In G.P. Andrews & Y.D. Wangdi (Eds.), The role of agency and memory in historical understanding: Revolution, reform, and rebellion (pp. 206-220). New Castle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

Gray, K. (2017, October 11). GOP leadership kicks state Sen. Patrick Colbeck off 4 committees. Detroit Free Press. www.freep.com/story/news/politics/2017/10/11/michigan-senator-patrick-colbeck committees/753749001 

Hess, F.M. (2018, January 4). Give the College Board credit for acting on conservatives’ concerns. National Review. www.nationalreview.com/2018/01/college-board-advanced-placement-european-history-framework-revised-version-conservatives-complain 

Higgins, L. (2016, May 18). Michigan students sliding fast toward the bottom. Detroit Free Press. www.freep.com/story/news/education/2016/05/18/michigan-students-slidingtoward-bottom/84535876 

Hinkley, J.A. (2015, May 22). An F in civil rights education: Michigan to revamp lessons. Free Press. www.freep.com/story/news/2015/05/22/michigan-civil-rights-education/27781257 

Littlefield, C. (2015, July 30). Revised U.S. history curriculum addresses criticism, but conservatives still object. Los Angeles Times. www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-ap-us-history-20150730-story.html 

Mount Clemens takes a stand against ban on ‘America.’ (2006, June 28) Mount Clemens Clinton-Harrison Journal. 

Nash, G.B. (1997). Reflections on the national history standards. National Forum, 77 (3), 14. 

Nash, G.B., Crabtree, C.A., & Dunn, R.E. (2000). History on trial: Culture wars and the teaching of the past. New York: Vintage Books. 

Patriot week events focus on history, spirit. (2010, September 8) Oakland Press. 

Reed Amar, A. (2005). America’s constitution: A biography. New York: Random House. 

Sieff, K. (2010, October 20). Virginia 4th-grade textbook criticized over claims on black Confederate soldiers. Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/19/AR2010101907974.html 

Warren, M. (2007). America’s survival guide: How to stop American’s impending suicide by reclaiming our first principles and history. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press. 

Warren, W.J., Andrews, G.P., Cousins, J.P. (2017). Historians need to collaborate with K-12 educators more than ever. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, 42 (1), 36-46. 

Will plan for social studies survive? (2007, May 3) Detroit News. 

 

Originally published in May 2018 Phi Delta Kappan, 99 (8), 19-24. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved. 

WILSON J. WARREN (wilson.warren@wmich.edu) is a professor and chair of the Department of History at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. His is a coauthor of Collaboration and the Future of Education: Preserving the Right to Think and Teach Historically (Routledge, 2016).
GORDON P. ANDREWS (andrewgo@gvsu.edu) is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

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