Right's new social studies plan vows to fight CRT, wokeness and the "overthrow of America"

"American Birthright" elevates Western civilization, pushes Christianity and rejects all talk of "social justice"

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published July 8, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

School children holding their hands over their hearts while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a classroom. (Lambert/Getty Images)
School children holding their hands over their hearts while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a classroom. (Lambert/Getty Images)

In late June, a conservative education coalition called the Civics Alliance released a new set of social studies standards for K-12 schools, with the intention of promoting it as a model for states nationwide. These standards, entitled "American Birthright," are framed as yet another corrective to supposedly "woke" public schools, where, according to Republicans, theoretical frameworks like critical race theory are only one part of a larger attack on the foundations of American democracy. 

"Too many Americans have emerged from our schools ignorant of America's history, indifferent to liberty, filled with animus against their ancestors and their fellow Americans, and estranged from their country," reads the introduction to "American Birthright." (The "birthright" here refers to "freedom.") And the fields of history and civics, it suggests, exemplify the worst of that trend. "The warping of American social studies instruction has created a corps of activists dedicated to the overthrow of America and its freedoms, larger numbers of Americans indifferent to the steady whittling away of American liberty, and many more who are so ignorant of the past they cannot use our heritage of freedom to judge contemporary debates." 

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While it claims to represent an ideologically neutral, apolitical history, the document holds that most instruction that references "diversity, equity and inclusion" or "social justice" amounts to "vocational training in progressive activism" and "actively promote[s] disaffection from our country." It heralds Ronald Reagan as a "hero of liberty" alongside Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Its proposed lessons in contemporary U.S. history include Reagan's revitalization of the conservative movement, Bill Clinton's impeachment, "Executive amnesties for illegal aliens" and the "George Floyd Riots."  

American Birthright is just one of numerous recent right-wing efforts to overhaul public K-12 curricula to align with the dictates of current conservative ideology. 

Last week, the Miami Herald reported that Florida's Department of Education has begun holding three-day training sessions for public school teachers around the state to prepare them to implement the state's new Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative, Gov. Ron DeSantis' flagship effort to create a more "patriotic" civics curriculum. The new Florida standards were created in consultation with Hillsdale College, a small Christian college that has become a guiding force on the right, and the Charles Koch-founded Bill of Rights Institute. 

Some Florida teachers say the state's new standards promote a "Christian fundamentalist" understanding of history, and that trainers had told them the founding fathers opposed the separation of church and state.

As the Herald reported, a number of teachers who attended the first training, in Broward County, emerged with deep concerns. Some said the new civics standards appeared to promote "a very strong Christian fundamentalist way" of analyzing U.S. history. Others recounted that trainers had claimed that America's founding fathers opposed strict separation of church and state, had compared the end of school-sponsored prayer to segregation and had downplayed the history of American slavery in misleading ways. (Slides from the training presentation noted that enslaved people in the U.S. only accounted for 4% of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which both minimizes the number of people ultimately enslaved in America and suggests that other countries' slavery practices were worse.)

Also last week, the Texas Tribune reported that a group of advisers to the state's education board — which is adapting its own social studies standards after Texas' legislature banned teaching about racism or slavery in ways that make students "feel discomfort" — had proposed that second-grade teachers call slavery "involuntary relocation." (After a board member objected, the board voted to "revisit" that language.) 

Currently, a number of conservative activists and media figures are campaigning against the Civics Secures Democracy Act, a bipartisan bill recently reintroduced in the U.S. Senate that would provide funding for civics education research and programming. In multiple articles calling on conservatives to oppose the bill, the Civics Alliance charged that the bill would "transform civics education, injecting identity politics into K-12 classrooms around the country" and divide "Americans into mutually hostile factions." The National Review called the bill a trap that would open "the door to the nationalization of CRT." And last week, DeSantis charged that the bill was an attempt to "buy off states with $6 billion if they sacrifice American History for Critical Race Theory and Biden's other political whims of the day." 

But even in this climate, "American Birthright" seeks to distinguish itself through the scope of its ambitions. The document is not a curriculum but rather a model set of social studies standards, of the sort that state-level education departments adopt in order to guide and regulate individual school districts as they craft their own curricula. 

That's by design. Civics Alliance describes its mission as "preserving and improving America's civics education and preventing the subordination of civics education to political recruitment tools," namely by writing model bills and social studies standards that lawmakers and activists can use to influence the curricula schools and school districts create. 

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As the document explains, "We chose this form because state standards are the single most influential documents in America's education administrations." Not only do such standards have significant impact on public school curricula, they also affect those of AP courses, charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and textbooks used across the country. "American Birthright's" authors charge that "far too many" state education departments "are set on imposing state social studies standards that combine...the worst of misguided pedagogical theory with the worst of anti-American animus." So Civics Alliance is effectively bypassing them, taking their pitch directly to state governors, lawmakers and school boards, as well as grassroots activists who can pressure politicians to deploy the new standards. 

*  *  *

The Civics Alliance was created in 2021 as an offshoot of another entity, the National Association of Scholars, a conservative nonprofit aimed at reforming higher education which features right-wing leaders like Ginni Thomas (the suddenly-famous spouse of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) on its board. NAS launched Civics Alliance after Joe Biden closed down the 1776 Commission — Donald Trump's answer to the "1619 Project" — on his first day in office. In fact, the Civics Alliance seems to have consciously taken up the 1776 Commission's professed mission. In "American Birthright," the authors insist they aren't seeking to create a uniform national curriculum, but cite the 1776 Curriculum — published in 2021 by Hillsdale College, from which two leading members of Trump's commission were drawn — as aligned with their vision, along with the curricula of Great Hearts Academies, a "classical education" network, and the Black conservative group 1776 Unites.

Too many education officials, the authors claim, "combine the worst of misguided pedagogical theory with the worst of anti-American animus."

NAS and its leaders have involved themselves in numerous contemporary education controversies. In 2018, Civics Alliance executive director David Randall took aim at Massachusetts education authorities after they revised the state's social science standards. In a report with the Pioneer Institute, "No Longer a City on a Hill," Randall charged that the new standards were "an exercise in progressive educational propaganda and vocational training for how to be a political activist" (a charge echoed nearly verbatim in "American Birthright"). As evidence, Randall wrote that the standards had subordinated the "Founding era" to the civil rights movement, used "politically correct vocabulary" such as "Native American" rather than "Indian," noted that the Industrial Revolution had resulted in wealth inequality, and failed to recommend texts from right-wing icons like Phyllis Schlafly (on women's rights) or Justice Antonin Scalia (on gun control).

This April, NAS released a brief warning conservatives that "social emotional learning" — at its most basic, a term for teaching students to regulate their emotions and play well with classmates — had been reoriented "toward teaching a radical political agenda and promoting student activism," particularly around race. The Civics Alliance announced a corresponding initiative to build a network of state affiliates "dedicated to removing" SEL "action civics" from their states. DeSantis' administration subsequently cited the use of SEL concepts as justification for rejecting nearly half of the math textbooks submitted to it for consideration by Florida schools.

This February, when NAS released a study ranking 15 different K-12 civics curricula, both the 1776 Curriculum and 1776 Unites received high scores, as did Florida's new civics standards; NAS gave the "1619 Project," predictably, an "F." In a podcast interview last week marking the release of the standards, Randall said that he saw "American Birthright" as the sort of work Trump's 1776 Commission might have created, had it continued. Indeed, a number of the same figures were involved in both. 

The list of groups and individuals involved in the creation of "American Birthright" reads like a who's-who of U.S. right-wing policy advocacy, including think tanks like the Claremont Institute, the Family Research Council and the creationist Discovery Institute, and influential state groups such as Arizona's Goldwater Institute and Massachusetts' Pioneer Institute. The document gives prominent credit to Florida's Department of Education, and its 2021 revised civics standards, and lists a department official among its expert consultants. 

Other coauthors, consultants and board members have played prominent roles in education stories Salon has tracked in recent months. There is Mari Barke, a California education board member and staffer at the right-wing California Policy Center, whose husband runs one of Hillsdale College's charter schools. There is Richard Lowery, a University of Texas-Austin professor who helped propose a right-wing institute on the UT campus that Texas Republicans see as an antidote to CRT. There is anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo, architect of the right's education agenda for the last two years, as well as people like Parental Rights Foundation president William Estrada, Moms for Liberty cofounder Tiffany Justice, right-wing direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie and multiple staffers associated with Hillsdale College and Schlafly's Eagle Forum. 

More importantly, there are more than 20 state lawmakers and elected officials credited with helping create the standards, including, most prominently, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Also listed is Arizona state Rep. Shawnna Bolick, wife of Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick, who, as Salon reported last week, has been a leading figure in school privatization efforts.

*  *  *

"American Birthright" has yet to receive much attention from the mainstream press, but among conservative think tanks and media, it's been heralded as the way forward, often by figures involved in its creation. City Journal, the publication of the Manhattan Institute, cheered the standards as a "Return to Lincoln." Wisconsin's MacIver Institute asserted that American Birthright "doesn't train students to protest" but rather "to be students of history." The Federalist Society declared, "Here's what your child's school should be teaching about American history and government." David Randall himself wrote that the standards were necessary because, "If education reformers don't act now, Woke social studies standards will teach a slanderous caricature of our history that prepares students to work to replace our republic with an illiberal regime." 

Some of the claims made to bolster American Birthright have been misleading, as when the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions — another member of the coalition behind the document — suggested that Kentucky's current standards mean students don't learn about figures like Ben Franklin or Abraham Lincoln. 

"Woke social studies standards," warns David Randall, "teach a slanderous caricature of our history" that could lead to replacing "our republic with an illiberal regime."

That's far from accurate, said Sarah Shear, a professor of social studies and multicultural education at the University of Washington-Bothell and coauthor of two national studies assessing state K-12 standards on U.S. history, civics and government. Most state standards are streamlined by necessity, says Shear, and the absence of individual figures from general standards doesn't mean they aren't taught. 

"I read every state's standards, cover to cover," said Shear. "And I'm just perplexed at the notion that the state standards are in any way radically left."

What some have done, Shear continued, is open standards to more accurate and complex representations of history. "How does that threaten us as a nation, to know more and think more deeply about history, whether it's Washington, Lincoln, the Constitution or the American Revolution?" she asked. "When we peel back the layers and reveal a much more detailed story of how the United States became a country, it's not a story that includes everyone having freedom and democracy from the word go. That's just not what happened here."

"I often hear from people that telling the truth threatens the pretty story of the country we live in," she continued. "But not telling the truth has harmed everyone, because it has not provided the capacity by which we could address the problems we still have." 

Christopher Martell, a social studies education professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who wrote a Twitter thread about "American Birthright" last week, says another problem with the model standards is how they provide fixed answers to questions that social studies classrooms are meant to debate, such as the role of the free market or how to balance questions of religious freedom. 

Martell said he was particularly concerned about "a clear undertone" in American Birthright suggesting "that the U.S. is a Christian nation founded on Christian values and beliefs," exemplified by passages calling for curricula to emphasize "the role of faith in sustaining and extending liberty" and describing America's founding principles as "rooted in Christian thought." 

Likewise, Martell pointed to the standards' ubiquitous emphasis on Western civilization, evident in the document's statement that "America's ideas of freedom" come from "the long history of Western civilization" but also in the way both U.S. and European history, which are covered in depth, are contrasted with "world history." 

While "American Birthright" presents Western civilization as a rich intellectual legacy that includes the creation of science and democracy, the non-European world is largely covered as the study of "migrations, clashes, massacres [and] conquests" undertaken by "small-scale tribes, nomadic societies, and villages that preceded civilization, whose warlike nature must be understood in order to comprehend the character and the magnitude of the civilizing process." 

"To me, that is like trying to embed white supremacy in the standards without saying, 'This is the white supremacy curriculum,'" said Martell. "It sends a message that Western society is civilization, and the rest of the world is not." 

*  *  *

Much of "American Birthright" reflects recent education fights. For example, the document calls on the federal government to "withdraw from regulating or funding any aspect of K-12 education," to pass legislation prohibiting "discriminatory pedagogies and action civics" (read: CRT and SEL), to require that high school studies classes teach "Western civilization" and that all academic standards be approved by state governors and legislatures, and to reform teaching licensure so as to "end the gatekeeping power of the education schools and departments." 

That last point in particular has featured in several recent attacks on public education. In an April speech at Hillsdale College, Christopher Rufo called for state lawmakers to rescind requirements that teachers must hold education degrees and forecast a future when teachers with masters degrees will be shunned by hiring committees, who would correctly see such credentials as signs of radical left-wing politics. Just last week, journalist Phil Williams at Tennessee's NewsChannel 5 reported on secret recordings of Hillsdale president Larry Arnn disparaging public school teachers as having been "trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country," during a private event with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who is rolling out Hillsdale programs across the state.

Similar to last week's controversy around Florida's civics training, which many participants felt minimized U.S. slavery, "American Birthright" instructs curriculum makers to teach that many more enslaved Africans were transported to Latin America or the Caribbean than the U.S. and suggests comparing U.S. slavery to "different forced-labor regimes, including Muslim slavery, Eastern Europe's Second Serfdom, African slavery [and] American Indian slavery." The standards also suggest that 19th-century European imperialism should be taught as a boon to colonized people, accounting for "Improved life expectancy and growing populations among colonized peoples" as well as the "Abolitions of slavery." 

Neither Martell nor Shear see realistic prospects that "American Birthright" will find a broad reception, either at the national level or among individual teachers. Both worried, however, that the standards could find a path to influence through conservative state lawmakers, as Civics Alliance itself clearly hopes. 

"I imagine a bunch of conservative politicians handing this to state education agencies and saying, 'We need to use this document to write our framework,'" said Martell. "Then teachers will have to address the framework when they are observed by their principals or when they talk about lesson planning with their departments." 

Some states, such as Illinois, make standards decisions at the local level, said Shear, meaning conservative activists might also lobby to get something like "American Birthright" introduced locally. 

"It always comes down to who gets to control the narrative of whose experiences and whose voices matter," said Shear. "When I see standards like Florida's, or this 'Birthright' curriculum, it's very much seeking a return to the narrative that privileges a particular identity and does not tell the entirety of the truth of what the United States has been in the past, is right now, or should be in the future. And that's very worrisome to me." 

"There's a long game with what they're doing here. There was a long game to overturn Roe v. Wade, and I think they're doing that with education as well," said Martell. "Twenty or 30 years ago, I couldn't have imagined a neoconservative, Christian-influenced civics workshop for teachers being pushed by the state." Now, he said, in Florida and beyond, that's here. 

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on the right's campaign against public education:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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