With history-laden news breaking out all over, North Carolina authorities have picked an inauspicious moment to reduce American history courses required in its K-12 schools. The cutback results from a trade-off likely to result in higher costs than benefits in educational advancement and to democracy.
To implement a law passed last summer by the General Assembly, the State Board of Education last week adopted new social studies graduation requirements, beginning with 9th grade students in 2020-21. Instead of two semester-long American history courses, the reshuffling consolidates all of American history into one semester-long course. An existing course that included civics, economics, and personal finance is split into two courses: Civic Literacy with an emphasis on the “founding principles’’ of the United States and North Carolina, and Economics and Personal Finance.
Legislators may have acted with good intentions in wanting young people to emerge from high school with a grasp of taking out a loan, managing a personal budget, and such. And they may content themselves that some constitutional history will be taught in civics. Still, the legislative reshuffling of requirements represents yet another move toward utilitarian education as distinct from the original purpose of mass public education: assuring an informed citizenry to sustain the democratic-republic.
The public life of the state and nation feels the pressure of the stresses and strains on democracy today. The Senate trial of an impeached president begins next week. A polarized polity anxiously enters a hyper-contentious election year. Falsehoods flow freely, in competition with professional journalism, on the internet. Racism and nativism persist. Faith in key public and private-sector institutions erodes.
As Kim Mackey, a 12th-grade teacher at Green Hope High School in Wake County, says, a more thorough study of history enables students to deepen their critical-thinking skills and understanding of history-in-the-making. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson lends perspective to today’s impeachment proceedings, and the yellow journalism of the early 20th Century offers parallels to today’s fake news. Under the new requirements, she says, American history becomes a “crash course’’ in which students “are not going to understand we’ve been through this before.”
Like Mackey, Rodney Pierce, now teaching at Red Oak Middle School in Nash-Rocky Mount Schools, points out that he taught personal finance as an element in the current civics course. His worry is that African-American and female students can become more financially literate and still face history-rooted discrimination in pay and in applying for a loan. The re-engineering of social studies, he says, “will allow some teachers to gloss over this history and do a disservice to students.”
To history professor Lloyd Kramer, “This change represents another attack on our future civic culture as well as an attack on current historical education in our state.” Kramer, the interim chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, is director of Carolina Public Humanities, which offers workshops and lesson plans for K-12 teachers.
Four days after the state board’s action, The New York Times published a review of history textbooks that should serve as a warning signal against political and ideological intrusion in North Carolina. The Times reported that eight history texts were customized to fit the preferences of Republicans in Texas and Democrats in California. In their treatment of suburban growth, for example, the California textbooks mention housing discrimination, including redlining, encountered by black residents, while the Texas texts do not cover redlining.
No doubt the 2019 law is not the last word in North Carolina on the teaching of history. The state can return to a more robust exploration of history in its schools and avoid distortions arising from ideological conflicts by drawing on competent scholars and listening to experienced classroom teachers. Actually, with the easy availability of original-source documents online, a time is at hand for skillful social studies and history teachers to instill in students a life-long excitement for exploring the history of their nation, state, and community.
Of course, North Carolina needs schools aligned with high-skill business and industry, schools strong in STEM, schools that teach students to thrive in the modern economy. But the state also needs schools that strengthen its civic culture by producing engaged, history-aware citizens and schools that perform the original mandate of public education to contribute to forming a more perfect union.