Ethics & Public Policy Center

Beware: New Civics Mandates Will Be Woke

Published in National Review Online on December 28, 2020


Americans dismayed by the mendacity and distortions of the 1619 Project are headed for a fall. A commendable desire to counter both civic illiteracy and the excesses of woke ideology has produced a new national movement to mandate history and civics standards. Unfortunately, that strategy will produce the very opposite of its intended effect. Far from restoring traditional understandings of American citizenship, the proposed history and civics mandates will entrench woke ideology nationally, imposing it on the reddest of red-state school-districts, and ultimately on private and religious schools as well.

The conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is considering a model bill that would have state legislatures mandate history and civics standards. Bipartisan federal legislation to fund curriculum development and teacher training in civics has also been introduced. Comprehensive proposals to create de facto national history and civics standards on the model of Common Core are in the works as well, and likely to be adopted by a Biden administration. Every one of these initiatives will undermine the very ends they appear to promote. Conservative legislators who support them will one day find themselves facing an army of angry constituents. The blowback against these ill-considered civics mandates will make the battle over Common Core look like patty-cake. By then, unfortunately, the damage will have been done.

Sound implausible? It shouldn’t, because it’s happened before. The National History Standards fiasco of the early 1990s chillingly prefigures the trap into which traditionalists are about to tumble. Back then, America was in the early stages of our education culture war. The overthrow of Stanford’s Western Civilization requirement in 1988 had launched the newly dubbed movement for “multiculturalism,” which in turn provoked a counter-attack on what would soon be called “political correctness.”

In 1991, a New York state report demanding K-12 curricula focused on racial and ethnic oppression drew a stinging rebuke from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the esteemed liberal historian and Kennedy administration veteran. In his book, The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger affirmed our shared tradition of individual freedom and political democracy as the keys to American identity, adding that alienating young minorities from the Western democratic tradition would irreparably divide the country. Schlesinger’s searing indictment of multiculturalism was lauded by liberals and conservatives alike, with The New York Times leading the way.

Bipartisan agreement on the need to revitalize commitment to common American ideals was reinforced by survey data showing that high-schoolers had a feeble grasp of even the most basic elements of history and civics. The response from the George H.W. Bush administration, working in close collaboration with the nation’s governors, was to call for national history standards. Although this effort circumvented the traditional American emphasis on local control of curriculum content, it was felt that the tattered state of civic knowledge, emerging national divisions over multiculturalism, and the need to remain educationally competitive with rising powers like Japan justified a national approach.

As leader of the drive to craft national history standards, National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne Cheney commissioned and funded a consortium of scholars and educators to complete the work. That’s when it all went south. With bipartisan buy-in at the highest levels, consensus-based standards looked like a sure thing. What the big guns hadn’t figured on was that the professors and teachers they needed to fill in the details of the standards had already bought into the very same multicultural project that the politicos (and the voters they represented) were hoping to combat. The standards that emerged highlighted oppression, emphasized group differences, and added a heaping helping of globalism to boot.

Cheney felt compelled to launch a national campaign against the very standards that she herself had commissioned and paid for. Although she succeeded in winning near-unanimous condemnation of the National History Standards in the U.S. Senate, it was a Pyrrhic victory. The blowback only drew more attention. An education establishment filled with teachers and bureaucrats considerably to the left of the country at large swiftly adopted the controversial standards, and we live with the consequences today. The National History Standards battle by itself didn’t cause the collapse of American history and civics, but it did accelerate that collapse, quite the opposite of what its proponents intended.

We are poised for a re-run of this debacle, only this time it will be worse. The National History Standards of the 1990s were adopted voluntarily, against the recommendation of the U.S. Senate. If state legislatures adopt the proposed ALEC bill, however, leftist history and civics will be legally locked in. Under state standards created by either the ALEC bill, or by the plan a Biden administration is likely to press upon the states, traditionally inclined school districts will be effectively barred from choosing better curricula. Over the long term, even private, parochial, and denominational schools will be forced into the same leftist curricular box. Legislators may think they’re voting for consensus-based bipartisan history and civics standards. They’ll be getting woke history and civics instead.

How is that possible? The proposed ALEC model bill certainly doesn’t look “woke.” On the contrary, it specifically recommends that the state school boards responsible for setting the required history and civics curricula consult with traditional-leaning institutions and organizations, including Hillsdale College and the Bill of Rights Institute. Yet that is only a recommended option.

The critical point is that final responsibility for setting the new history and civics curriculum will lie with state school boards and their attendant bureaucracy. These boards, and even more so the bureaucratic curriculum specialists upon whom they rely, are far more left-leaning than the legislators — or citizens — of their states. Most come out of university schools of education, where “woke” curricula are generated to begin with. ALEC’s model bill gives these left-leaning bureaucrats carte blanche to set state curricular standards. That means those standards will be a world apart from what parents in traditional and conservative-leaning school districts would choose. Like the politicians who relied on teachers and college professors to devise the National History Standards in the 1990s, legislators will find their well-intentioned efforts captured by the very advocates they are hoping to counter.

Here’s another reason the capture of statewide civics standards by the Left is a near certainty. The civics now recognized and promoted by America’s dominant, left-leaning education establishment is radically different from what conservatives or traditionalists think of when they hear the word civics. Not one in ten conservatives has even heard of “action civics” or “project-based civics,” but this is what professional educators now mean by civics. Essentially, “action civics” trains students to protest on behalf of leftist political causes. The Parkland students who agitate for gun laws, as well as the seven- to-sixteen-year-old students who notoriously surrounded and harangued Sen. Dianne Feinstein about the Green New Deal, are considered models of action civics by the Left. Those students are notable for refusing even to consider opposing points of view. Anger is their currency. Action civics is the application of Alinsky-style political organizing tactics to school children.

So-called action civics is more like anti-civics. It pressures ill-prepared students to take up leftist causes, when educators dealing with policy controversies ought to be teaching students how to assess the strengths and weaknesses of conflicting viewpoints instead.  Leftist action civics is already widespread in blue states, and activists hope to force it onto deep-dyed red-state school districts via statewide civics mandates. These activists hope to use the Biden administration to do it, but ALEC is about to beat them to the punch by having conservatives inadvertently impose action civics on themselves.

Have a look at the website of Illinoiscivics.org, considered a model for teachers who favor the new not-so-civic “civics.” The site was created as a teaching resource in the wake of Illinois’s adoption in 2015 of a semester-long civics requirement for high schools, in combination with new social studies standards containing an “action” component. You will see at the top of the Illinois Civics website two sets of featured resources, one on “Anti-Racist Classrooms” and one devoted to “Teaching LGBTQ+ History.”

The resources devoted to so-called anti-racism are a veritable festival of woke. They feature the teachings of Ibram X. Kendi, Bettina L. Love, and Critical Race Theorists of education like Gloria Ladson-Billings. The approach on offer is more than systematically politicized. It stands in direct opposition to the principles that undergird both our constitutional system and liberal education itself. Once again, anti-civics is posing as civics.

The sad truth is that hard-Left (anti-)civics is now vastly more organized, funded, and validated by foundation policy papers, statewide resource sites, etc. than any traditionalist alternative. At this point, a vast array of “civics” material can be advertised as having been tried and tested in states like Illinois and Massachusetts, which jumped on the “new civics” bandwagon some time ago. Left-leaning education bureaucrats in red states can easily build curriculum requirements around this material.

Under the ALEC bill, state boards of education will throw a bone to conservative legislators by drawing a couple of items from Hillsdale or ConSource, while they infuse the larger share of the curriculum with requirements in action civics and so-called anti-racism. The wording of these requirements will be vague enough to divert legislative alarm, but woke civics will be the result. It will take a year or two for angry constituents to come complaining to their elected representatives. By then, objections to the new requirements will be dismissed as ideological posturing running counter to evidence from other states, not to mention the best judgment of the state’s own education “experts.”

The Illinois Civics teaching resource page on LGBTQ+ history builds off of a 2019 Illinois curriculum law requiring the teaching of such history by the end of eighth grade. The posted teaching materials blend history with not-so-subtle advocacy for highly contested perspectives on cultural issues. Some of links have little to do with history at all and go directly to advocacy organizations instead.

While any state can pass such a requirement, a nationwide movement for detailed statewide history/civics standards is sure to set off battles over required (and decidedly ideological) LGBTQ+ curricula in many states. The ALEC model bill originally required private, parochial, and denominational schools to adopt history and civics curricula “similar” to those of public schools. That language has been softened, but it hints at moves that could be made down the road by legislators who are not at all conservative. Even without that language, left-leaning state bureaucrats are effectively empowered by ALEC’s model bill to create a left-leaning LGBTQ+ history requirement, if they so choose.

This could have serious consequences for parochial and denominational schools. Detailed state curriculum standards could be tied to state tests, which are also often imposed on religious schools that accept state tuition vouchers, or seek to participate in other state programs, such as athletics. Failure on those tests would imperil a school’s accreditation, or bring the loss of state voucher funding or other state benefits. Teacher certification would likely also be tied to mastering the state standards. Whether by law or by bureaucratic fiat, once advocacy-tinged LGBTQ+ requirements are built into state standards, religious schools will be trapped.

One of the organizations singled out for consultation by the proposed ALEC model bill is anything but conservative. In a nod to bipartisanship, the ALEC model bill encourages state boards of education to consult with a group called iCivics. iCivics carries a sheen of moderation, because the organization was founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to teach civics to school children via video games.

Since then, iCivics has gone woke. It’s now committed to “pointing out institutional systemic racism” even though “this will alienate some.” Its leaders see the younger generation’s approval of NFL players kneeling in protest at the playing of the national anthem as a sign of civic advancement, not decline. The same leaders glowingly cite the work of Ibram X. Kendi. What’s more, iCivics was closely involved in the development of that Illinois Civics campaign to bring so-called anti-racism and Critical Race Theory into the classroom.

In fact, iCivics leads a national coalition of groups dedicated to promoting the new “action civics,” and associated ideologies like Critical Race Theory. By singling out this only-apparently moderate group for curriculum consultation, ALEC is green-lighting red-state education bureaucrats to impose the entire woke (anti-)civics vision on even the most traditional school districts. Unfortunately, even removing the mention of iCivics from the bill would make little difference. The legislation already gives state education bureaucrats a free hand to follow the curriculum prescriptions of the iCivics coalition. They will surely do so.

New state-level history and civics standards are not the solution to our civic doldrums. The best way to battle educational decline is a return to local control, which should never have been abandoned in the first place. Relying on our current education establishment to carry out reform is a fool’s errand. They are what got us into trouble to begin with. The real hope for improvement lies with parents. A grassroots movement to take back the curriculum from woke education bureaucrats could shift the composition of local school boards across the country. That is the level at which curricula recommended by places like Hillsdale College, ConSource, and 1776 Unites should be adopted. The newly announced group, American Achievement Testing (AAT), plans to take this strategy to another level by combining a comprehensive American history curriculum built around Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope with the capacity for testing. Nowadays, influence over the curriculum requires the capacity to devise tests.

The drive for National History Standards failed miserably, even when The New York Times and virtually the whole of the political class was on its side. How much less are national or even statewide curriculum mandates poised to succeed now that the The New York Times and the Democratic Party’s leading faction have turned woke? True local control — at the level of local school boards and schools of choice — has been the solution all along, as anyone familiar with our federalist system and America’s civic history might have concluded. Will we have the good sense to recognize this before it’s too late?

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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