In the early days of the American Republic, Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the staunchest advocate of public education. Jefferson authored a plan for public primary and secondary schools and is father of the University of Virginia. He would be appalled at the state of public education today.
Jefferson loved reading and knowledge for its own sake, of course, but believed the success of the American experiment depended on an educational system that would instill a knowledge of history and values in the citizenry. He was not alone among the Founders in this belief, but few expressed themselves better. Jefferson was eloquent on the study of history as especially important because, as he put it, “apprising [students] of the past will enable them to judge of the future.”
Enemies of free government have always recognized this simple truth and have tried to recast history to lead the next generations to believe as they do. Kings and emperors, Soviets and Nazis of the past, and extremist Muslims today employ court historians, forever mingling history and politics. They know they can shape the policies of today and tomorrow by creating a past of their own.
Howard Zinn, perhaps this country’s most successful radical or progressive historian, put it best when he said he wrote history “to change the world.” He understood history as indoctrination and felt it vital that the next generation be indoctrinated, or educated by learning his version of history. Like Jefferson, Zinn knew that the values passed on to future generations through the educational system shape the future by dictating political choices. There the similarities end — Jefferson and his contemporaries were products of the Enlightenment, assuming education to be a search for truth rather than a means of dictating the future. Zinn intended — and today’s liberal progressives seek — to replace the traditional view of American history with a dark view of a nation built on aggressive racist imperialism, theft and genocide. They would drive those who do not agree from the public square, or at least from the classroom.
David Horowitz and others have sounded the alarm about our college campuses for decades, but the bubbling controversy is now focused on the College Board. Headed by David Coleman, who most consider the architect of Common Core, the College Board is a private, nonprofit that for more than a century has set standards for college admissions. It essentially dictates what high schools need to teach their best students in disciplines from math to history to English in preparing them for college. Teachers who used to teach from a five-page framework, now receive a 98-page, detailed set of instructions on what history should be taught.
Zinn might have written the framework. Gone are most of the Founders and their ideas, as is their vision of a country dedicated to freedom. Major historical figures such as James Madison and Benjamin Franklin are ignored. As Jane Robbins and Larry Krieger of the American Principles Project put it, the framework distorts history and advances a consistently negative view of America.
They claim with justification that the College Board in advancing an ideological framework is operating as a “de facto legislature for the nation’s public and private high schools” with the power to essentially dictate what will be taught to students studying American history. Ms. Robbins and Mr. Krieger call it a “coup.” The National Association of Scholars essentially agrees with them, calling the framework a “dispiriting document.”
The Association study points out that while defenders of the new framework argue that high schools can go beyond the framework and teach students about Madison and others or expose them to different perspectives on the nation’s history, few will. They will “teach to the test” to make sure their students do well on college admissions tests without realizing that in the process, they will be indoctrinating generations of college-bound students.
Local control of primary and secondary education has been steadily wrested from the hands of parents and local authorities in the name of standards and quality by a federal government susceptible to pressure from ideological special interests. Those same interests dominate supposedly private groups more focused on indoctrination than educational excellence.
The Founders’ grand experiment is being put at risk by liberal progressive educational ideologues intent upon creating a citizenry ignorant of its real history, but indoctrinated to hate its country, its history and those who founded it.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.