“One of the most unhappy series of events in the state’s history began in 1835,” stated a textbook used in elementary schools across North Carolina. “As more and more white people came into their territory the Cherokee Indians had been driven further into the hills, but white settlers looked with greed on all their territory.”
The book went on to explain that only “a small group of Cherokee” signed a treaty to sell their land and move west. But the federal government enforced the sham treaty, anyway. “Families were seized at the dinner table or dragged from their beds to the stockades where the Indians were cruelly rounded up to wait for their journey into exile,” the book observed. “Of the seventeen thousand who started, over four thousand died on the Trail of Tears!”
Am I quoting some anti-American screed just published by a woke-Left activist? No. The book is entitled North Carolina: From Its Glorious Past to the Present. It was published in 1965.
Earlier this month, the State Board of Education approved a new set of standards to guide the social-studies curriculum. It’s entirely appropriate to revise academic standards to ensure accuracy, promote rigor, and challenge our educators and students to excel.
Alas, that’s not what happened here. As my John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops put it, some board members “railroaded the social studies standards adoption process last year, asking Department of Public Instruction staff to infuse the standards with language that reflected their left-wing ideology.”
Instead of striking “a balance between competing visions of the nation,” Stoops said, the new standards “sought to convey one vision, clumsily placing race, class, and gender conflicts at the center of the story at the expense of seeking to ensure children possess a satisfactory understanding of our social, political, and economic systems.”
If you read or watched recent news coverage of the issue, you may think it was all about the choice of a few disputed terms — whether students should be taught about “systemic racism” or just “racism,” for example. You may also think that with the new standards, our schoolchildren would finally be learning the true, unvarnished history of their state and nation for the first time.
It’s utter nonsense. The roles that slavery, segregation, prejudice, and other injustices have played in our history have been embedded in North Carolina’s curriculum for decades. Look at the texts our children read. Watch what they watch. Ask what they’re learning. As I note above, even a schoolbook commonly used in 1965 — while problematic in some ways, and not at all reflective of today’s curriculum — was explicit and vivid in its description of the American government’s sins during the Trail of Tears.
What really happened at the State Board of Education this month was a successful effort by activists to smuggle political propaganda such as critical race theory into North Carolina’s official academic standards. It’s why Republican board members such as Olivia Oxendine and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson objected so strenuously — objections that earned the two, a Lumbee and an African-American respectively, a grotesque characterization as Klansmen by a cartoonist for WRAL-TV.
Unfortunately, such caricatures are nothing new. For decades, when conservatives argued for education reforms based on academic rigor, parental choice, and performance pay for teachers, progressives went beyond questioning our interpretation of data or the likely effects of our proposals. Instead, they questioned our motives. They accused us of wanting to “destroy public education.”
If I were truly out to destroy public education, you know what I’d do? I’d insist that public schools remain closed to in-person instruction, with all its catastrophic costs for children and families, even though open schools are clearly not a significant source of COVID infections. And I’d swap out a balanced, standard course of study in American history for a “1619 Project” style scheme.
That’s how I’d infuriate parents and drive them away from public schools they might otherwise like. But, of course, I’d never do such a thing.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.