lessons from the Virginia social studies controversy

In Politico, James Traub offers a deeply reported account of the recent conflict over standards in Virginia, entitled “Virginia Went to War Over History and Students Actually Came Out on Top.”

Standards are official guidelines about what must be taught in public schools. They may influence enforceable policies, such as which textbooks are purchased and what is covered on exams, and hence the experience of students and teachers. Standards for history and civics often provoke the most intense debates, because they address the nature of our society. Although I had no involvement in the Virginia episode, I have been deeply engaged in other efforts to write frameworks and model standards for social studies, and Traub’s account rings true to me.

A very brief summary: under former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the Virginia state department of education drafted new state social studies standards. Before these standards could be reviewed by the state board, Northam was succeeded by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, whose campaign emphasized his opposition to “woke culture” and “critical race theory.” Youngkin named a new superintendent of public instruction and a majority of members of the school board. With those appointees in place, the state paused and then dramatically rewrote the draft standards, with input from strong conservatives.

Then the board, despite its Youngkin majority, rejected the new draft as biased and error-prone. It stepped in and painstakingly revised the document in ways that satisfied all of its members (including those who had been appointed by Northam) and drew support from outside groups viewed as both liberal and conservative. Traub writes, “The six-month debate was an absolutely terrible experience for everyone involved, yet the standards the board finally approved achieved something almost miraculous: something close to unity.”

As an example of the results, the state board coalesced around this language in the new standards document:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of world, United States, and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of wars and genocide, including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that have occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples, the indelible stain of slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of totalitarian and communist regimes. Students also will study inspirational moments … 

For me, these are the most important general lessons from the controversy.

First, although people bring prior political views into debates about what should be taught, our opinions are highly diverse (not simply left or right), and most of us want students to encounter and assess ideas that we personally do not endorse. Philosophical diversity is valuable because even those of us who want students to encounter a wide range of views may have implicit biases that can be challenged in a discussion. When serious participants who are ideologically diverse try to write good standards or guidelines together, they need not polarize into two camps, or even take predictable positions as individuals.

Debates about content are nuanced and often involve the appropriate balance between social and political history, leaders and popular movements, compelling stories and complexities, and domestic and international affairs. These questions do not necessarily have liberal or conservative answers.

Second, the hot debates are not only about which topics and ideas should be “covered” but also about how to teach. Should all students be required to learn some information, whether it interests them or not? Or should students have a lot of choice about which topics to investigate? Should students encounter highly charged topics–at all ages, only as older teenagers, or at all? Specifically, should public schools confront students with ideas that challenge their sense that they belong and are valued in the school? Does it matter which students are so challenged? Should the emphasis be on skills or knowledge, on theory or practice, and on discourse or action?

Again, these debates do not line up so that there is a right and a left camp. For myself: I believe that all students should be required to confront some information about our past that many will find uncomfortable and that relatively few students would seek out if they could drive all the questions in their classrooms. This position would seem to align me with pedagogical conservatives, except that the same points are being made most forcefully by progressives. For example, The 1619 Project is all about conveying facts deemed essential.

As many have noted, the new Florida African American History Standards basically suggest that no one supported slavery. Florida students must learn “how the members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery” and “how slavery increased … in spite of the desire of the Continental Congress to end the importation of slaves.” Florida students will study white people who were abolitionists, but no one who actually defended slavery. John C. Calhoun is never mentioned, let alone assigned as an author to read. Florida students are supposed to “recognize” the title of Dred Scott as a “landmark Supreme Court case” but do not have to read that decision, which declared that people of African descent could never be US citizens.

I would require students to read racist texts (no “de-platforming” Sen. Calhoun or Chief Justice Taney) and learn specific information. Ron DeSantis defends omitting that information and has ordered that “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” In partial contrast, the new Virginia standards say: “Students should be exposed to the facts of our past in a content-rich and engaging way, even when those facts are uncomfortable.”

Since these issues have many dimensions and nuances, it should not be surprising to find views shared across political differences. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is generally considered conservative. Commenting on the draft Virginia standards, their reviewers said, “The Dred Scott decision is not noted by name in any of the U.S. history course standards. Its enormous impact should at the least be mentioned here in what is (presumably) the high school course.” Likewise, they criticized the omission of McCarthyism, which “led to the violation of Americans’ rights.” I find myself perfectly aligned with this feedback despite being generally quite liberal as a voter.

Third, even when people’s views are diverse, nuanced, and unpredictable, there can be political advantages to presenting differences as polarized and defining the stakes so that a majority will agree with your own side. Glenn Youngkin waged a campaign against “woke” ideology in public schools. From the opposite end of the spectrum, someone went to a lot of trouble to create a popular meme about innocuous books that the DeSantis administration had allegedly banned, when the state had banned no books.

Actual misinformation is unacceptable, but I’ll mention a closer case. Florida did not pass a bill labeled “Don’t Say Gay.” That name was affixed by Democrats and liberals who criticized the law. The relevant provision says, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

I am not sure that the label “Don’t Say Gay” is false, but it simplifies the law in order to drive opposition to it. This mode of political debate is not necessarily wrong or bad. I oppose the actual Florida law and understand why liberals would mobilize people against it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues chose Birmingham, AL as their target in 1963 because they knew they could draw a clear contrast with the racist outgoing police commissioner. King wrote that a nonviolent campaign

seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

In short, dramatizing differences with one’s political opponent is a legitimate move in a free society. However, onlookers should be aware when this strategy is being used and should assess whether the goals are appropriate, and whether any collateral damage is necessary to accomplish the goals. They should also ask whether rhetoric has strayed from divisiveness into downright falsehood.

Ron DeSantis does not have to wage a rhetorical war against liberal educators; he could choose to deliberate with them, as the Virginia board did. Voters should recognize the choice to polarize an issue for what it is. They should not assume that it is inevitable. The Virginia case shows that another outcome is possible (although not automatically preferable) — people with diverse opinions can come to agreement.

Although politicians can be tempted to polarize, official bodies such as state boards can be equally inclined to present consensus even when they have not quite accomplished it. Above, I quoted the Virginia standards’ aspiration to “provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage” of history, but anyone may each assess whether they offer that. In my personal opinion, the list of “principles” on p. 4 is mildly problematic, presenting the debate between socialism and market economies as closed when I would ask students to think about it for themselves. But I don’t believe that this list matters much. In my view, the presentation of slavery and Black American “accomplishments” in the body of the Virginia standards is appropriate. Overall, the standards seem to take a both/and approach, genuinely including both the crimes and the successes of US history.

The whole document is quite short and general, which is itself a choice, leaving a lot for teachers to decide (for better and worse). Any major commercial textbook series would be compatible with these standards, which means that in many classrooms, the textbook will determine the content. In fact, the most important policy question may be who should decide what is taught–students, teachers, parents, local authorities, state authorities, or publishers? Because of its generality, the Virginia document may actually represent a delegation to the publishers.

See also: two dimensions of debate about civics; “Teaching Honest History:” a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools; a conversation with Danielle Allen about civic education; etc.