Recently, in a 7-5 vote, the North Carolina State Board of Education accepted new standards for social studies education in the state. The process of adopting new standards began before the pandemic forced changes in education, has been vetted by many consultants and state educators, and is set to take effect.
Education Superintendent Catherine Truitt included a preamble to the standards which states, “The North Carolina Board of Education believes that our collective social studies standards must reflect the nation's diversity and that the successes, contributions, and struggles of multiple groups and individuals should be included.” This is a fair statement and certainly a goal of all social studies teachers wherever they are.
However, in adding a preamble to the standards, Ms. Truitt also removed the word "systemic" in regards to racism and "gender" in association with identity. The standards passed, but not without acrimony from Republican board members. Was she right to remove those "hot button" words? The debate continues.
Standards for public school curriculum have always been political. Schools need tough and rigorous curriculum standards which are easily definable and defendable but also broad and vague enough to let each county unit and individual teacher decide how to integrate those ideals into the classroom. There is no surprise standards breed controversy. News reports of the board of education vote and the removal of the words made national news.
North Carolina’s elected Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson reacted negatively to the standards by exclaiming the word “systemic” seemed to suggest the country and the state were inherently racist and he took offense to that; arguing his own election and the election of other African Americans to state and federal government posts speaks volumes about America’s racial progress. He said, “The system of government that we have in this nation is not systemically racist. In fact, it is not racist at all.”
The Greensboro News and Record countered Mr. Robinson with a very good op-ed piece speaking to some of the progress but also recognizing institutional racism in various fields such as health care in the state.
The 7-5 vote by state board members should not shock anyone. In fact, it is a reflection of where we are as a country. After the New York Times began the 1619 Project in 2019 to discuss the history of slavery and oppression in America, President Donald Trump organized the 1776 Commission to counter the Times’s work by exploring how history should be taught. The commission’s report was released as newly inaugurated President Biden ended its work.
The date names of the two projects are revealing. The twin narratives of slavery and liberty define the country since its founding to the present. How larger histories and events connect to the two dates are part of the battle each state faces when writing and revising curriculum. 1619 is the year slaves arrived in Jamestown. Parts of the country were built on slave labor. Slavery in America created a culture of white supremacy and the myth of the "happy" and "cultivated" slave. These were lies people told themselves to continue a horrible system of servitude. Things were done. Families were separated. Others were killed. This history needs to be told. I heard a remark about a teacher recently telling students “slavery was not that bad.” This is ignorant and preposterous. It was bad. The newer state social studies standards finally mention some of this hard history and include it. That’s important.
1776 is remembered as the year of the approval, signing, and printing of the Declaration of Independence. It remains the greatest document in the world because it justifies rebellion when governments fail. It also states in the best language possible why governments should exist in the first place. The idea of independence conjures up many thoughts. The commission tried to think about the best way to teach American history. They made their recommendations in a 40-page report which hardly mentioned slavery and avoided other narratives involving discrimination of minority peoples like Native Americans. Instead, they argued the founding documents were important in understanding the history of the nation. This last point is certainly appropriate.
These twin narratives of slavery coupled with freedom are the driving forces in modern curriculum these days, not just in North Carolina. It remains to be seen how they can be sequenced to help all students learn the history of the country. There has always been tension between them. Both narratives are needed. Many politicians view them as a battle of extremes, and it shouldn’t be that way. Students can still learn about how individuals fought racism, and they can learn about how the original principles of the country were laid down with an effort to secure the eventual rights and liberties of others. One curriculum doesn’t have to "win" at the expense of the other.
Instead of arguing over the standards and whether the state and nation are systematically racist, the state board, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and especially the representatives in the state's General Assembly, could seek better ways to help educate the social studies teachers who are going to be teaching the new standards. Many teachers have taught without a quality textbook for over 12 years because the state has not funded them. There is no question concerning the need for more inclusion of minority voices in American history courses and textbooks.
For years, the state has spent an unimaginable amount of money on state-mandated North Carolina final exams which have absolutely negatively impacted minority students. Because many of the former state social studies standards did not always properly address an inclusive history of all peoples, it furthered the ideas of white supremacy without always intending to. Effective teachers have always been able to cut through and add to the existing curriculum to reflect more diversity. Social studies teachers in this state are going to need help teaching the new standards. How will the state help?
There are groups of teachers who are coming together in this state, from many disciplines besides social studies, to talk and discuss ways to combat stereotypes and the lack of diversity in classroom resources. To avoid "systemic" racism in schools, teachers need to be given more freedom to collaborate in order to put better resources in front of learners and to tell a better and more informed story.
Looking backwards, has there been evidence in the state and nation of systematic racism? Yes! Has the country also been a place to escape poverty and oppression and succeed? Yes. Can those narratives exist together? Yes.
But where there have been moments of prejudice and injustice, and places where people have fought it, those stories should absolutely be told. Students want to know the truth. They also want to know why.
Superintendent Truitt’s preamble is nice but not needed. It seems more like an apology than a preamble.
Social studies teachers strive to target the stories of diverse people in this state and nation, both positive and negative, every day in their classrooms. They discuss the victories people achieved and how hard the work was to get there. They try to get students to feel how tough some things were and relate those moments to life in their own time. Teaching students how individuals and groups have overcome challenges to many barriers such as racism and discrimination is a daily task. Having the opportunity to teach kids how to make sense of the past and their own lives is a daily task.
What teachers need is not politicians arguing over party lines, but a real "raise your sleeves" effort to support them in the efforts to give every student a great social studies education.
Recognition and responsibility are powerful acknowledgements. Teaching students about the complex history of different groups in the country and the state is an absolute component to helping young people become better citizens, as well as advocates and activists for generations to come.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and CCC&TI.