Will California’s Leftist K-12 Curriculum Go National?

by Stanley Kurtz

California is on the verge of approving a new and sharply left-leaning K-12 curriculum framework for history and social sciences. The move has national implications, since textbooks retooled to fit California’s changing history frameworks are often used much more widely.

California’s current curriculum is already biased toward modern liberalism, but the new framework takes several giant steps further to the left. On immigration, it is anti-assimilationist; on family and sexuality, it is radically anti-traditionalist; on terrorism, it tends to “blame America first;” on the 1960s, it highlights and implicitly lauds the most radical “black, brown, red, and yellow power movements;” on politics, it paints a halo over progressives while perpetrating a hit job on conservatives; on economics, it elevates Keynesian liberalism and ignores everything else; on military history, it is silent or slyly antagonistic; on contemporary politics, it reads like an anti-globalization protest pamphlet.

Put the proposed new California history-social science framework together with the College Board’s leftist Advanced Placement history curriculum, and K-12 education in this country could soon be a near-exclusively leftist affair.

Would you like to know why a vast new generation of Americans is infatuated with socialism? They’ve been drinking in leftist ideas since long before college. Now, between the new Advanced Placement curriculum and California’s leftist gambit, the space for more traditional approaches to American history and civics may soon be reduced to insignificance.

The alarm bell over California’s new history curriculum has been sounded by Hoover Institution Fellow, Williamson Evers. Evers was an Assistant Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, and over the past 20 years has sat on an impressive number of local and statewide California curriculum-setting and textbook-adoption commissions.

Evers has attacked the proposed new history framework for its one-sided cheerleading for modern liberalism, its silence on America’s distinctive characteristics, and its penchant for leftist “ideological propaganda.” Evers asks, for example, “Why do whole sections of the framework read as if they are pamphlets written by anti-globalization street protesters?” Evers has slammed the new K-12 framework in its entirety. Here, I’m going to do a concentrated critique of the framework’s 11th grade American history curriculum.

The 11th grade curriculum promises to focus on “movements toward equal rights for racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and women.” In practice, however, religious minorities receive limited attention. The focus is on racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities—sexual minorities above all. To a considerable degree, conventional political history (and even the new holy trinity of “race, gender, and class”) has been shoved aside or reduced to a supporting role by “race, ethnicity, and sexuality.”

The Hudson Institute’s John Fonte and I have argued that the College Board’s latest AP U.S. History framework drastically downplays, omits, and distorts the significance of the assimilationist ethos in American history. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the proposed California framework is even worse than AP on immigration. I think it’s fair to characterize California’s new curriculum as openly anti-assimilationist.

You can almost see the authors of the framework agonizing as they acknowledge that early 20th century progressives worked to assimilate European immigrants. Assimilation, the framework editorializes, is “questionable by today’s standards that generally embrace having a plurality of experiences in the country…” Students are instructed to use the supposed oddity of progressive assimilationists to “think historically” about what could have produced such an anomaly. The answer, the framework broadly hints, is some combination of racism and unregulated capitalism.

So here, instead of simply presenting the across-the-board political and cultural consensus of the Progressive Era in favor of assimilation, the authors of the framework feel it necessary to insist that the ideal of immigrant assimilation is no longer appropriate, and was probably based on some combination of bigotry and selfishness when it flourished.

The framework offers not a hint of the role played by American democratic ideals in the process of assimilation. Liberty and equality, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in our constitutional system, are the glue that binds Americans together, regardless of race or ethnicity. Understanding and embracing this “American Creed” is the real key to assimilation, as assimilation has been almost universally understood from the founding through the 1960s. Assimilation as a commitment to the democratic principles that guide our republic is both a powerful historical phenomenon and a key to understanding America’s distinctive characteristics. The principle of assimilation also rightly serves as a foundation for successful civic education. The proposed California curriculum not only omits and distorts the historical truth about assimilation, it intentionally makes it all but impossible to introduce a new generation of immigrants to the secret of America’s success.

The framework’s anti-assimilationist theme is carried through to the 1960s, where radicals and ethnic separatists are featured and presented as part of a benign push for civil rights. The black power movement, with its demands for racial separatism and change “by any means necessary,” is portrayed as beneficial, if misunderstood. The violent and still controversial American Indian Movement gets similar treatment.

Most striking of all, El Plan de Aztlan, the charter of the radical group MEChA, the militant separatist organization which aims to “reconquer” the American Southwest for Mexico, is also featured as a benign example of sixties civil rights activism. This is a dangerous concession to a group whose activists populate many California schools. It is also the ultimate repudiation of America’s assimilationist ethos.

Treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) sexuality—and of sexuality in general—is a novel addition to California’s history curriculum. No other 11th grade theme receives more coverage, as the framework goes well beyond an account of the post-sixties gay-rights movement. Students also learn about “Boston marriages” during the Progressive Era (marriage-like relationships between two women, often but not always asexual), drag balls during the Harlem Renaissance, and the like.

The subtext is decidedly “liberationist,” with a constant implication that traditional morality and family structures are oppressive and outdated. Sometimes the bias is pronounced, as in the section on the AIDS epidemic, where the framework bemoans “AIDS hysteria” and the consequent regrettable “retreat” from “sexual liberation movements.”

No balancing material is offered. For example, it would be easy to add coverage of the marriage movement that emerged in the 1990s, inspired by studies documenting the advantages to children of intact two-parent families. But that, of course, would complicate the liberationist narrative.

America is still actively debating the nature and status of transgenderism. A central question is the extent to which transgenderism’s public cause ought to be treated as strictly analogous to the African-American civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The California curriculum has no doubts on that score. For example, it presents Christine Jorgensen, who it calls the “’ex-G.I. transformed into a ‘blonde beauty’ through sex-reassignment surgery in 1952,” as both an intimation of civil rights struggles to come, and a welcome challenge to the “sex and gender system” of the fifties.

The most significant thing about the material on sexuality in the 11th grade history curriculum may be the sheer scope of it, since it tends to crowd out other issues. The general emphasis on social themes greatly weakens the framework’s treatment of political, military, and diplomatic history. So, for example, on World War I, students learn nothing of the role of American troops in turning the tide of battle, much less about heroes like Sargent York. They do learn, however, that American soldiers abroad found European ideas about sexuality “very liberating.”

The advent of Islamist terrorism gets virtually no substantive treatment in this supposedly updated 11th grade curriculum, although it is mentioned several times in passing. For example, although we learn that the attacks of September 11, 2001 prompted increased immigration enforcement at the Mexican border, we learn nothing of substance about the greatest foreign attack on American soil, or its aftermath.

The section on the Cold War broadly hints that CIA involvement in the overthrow of the Mossadegh government of Iran in 1953 was responsible for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and for the rise of contemporary Islamism in the Middle East as well. This way of looking at the American role in the Iranian coup of 1953 remains highly contested, while the leftist theory that Islamic radicalism is nothing but blowback from America’s actions in the Middle East is even more problematic and controversial. So the new 11th grade framework features a thoroughly biased and one-sided treatment of the central foreign policy challenge of our time.

The framework’s treatment of foreign and military policy—and of just about everything else—is deeply marked by nostalgia for the radicalism of the 1960s. The framework idealizes the sixties counter-culture’s rebellion against Cold War values, and even the radicals’ rebellion against fundamental American principles. No wonder this curriculum fails to comprehend the role of our founding values in the process of assimilation. In this revised curriculum, the radical movements of the 60s seemed almost to become a new American founding, superseding the original.

The 11th grade framework’s attention to the Pacific theater in World War II is the exception that proves the rule, as military history is otherwise absent. The account skips lightly over American victories, concentrating instead on the loss of Bataan, “one of the most grievous defeats in American military history.” Somehow the new framework has contrived to teach World War II, America’s greatest military victory, in such a way as to have students concentrate on America’s most grievous military defeat.

The 11th grade history framework lavishes attention on progressives and Democratic presidents, recounting the expansion of the federal government in the most sympathetic terms. By contrast, Republican presidents are either ignored or painted in a bad light. Students are never offered a coherent explanation of what conservatives believe.

Students learn, for example, that President Theodore Roosevelt “embodied the progressive sentiment that called upon the government to restore and preserve freedom because the sense was that only by working through the government could the power of big business be countered and would people be protected.”

The problem is that students never hear the other side of the story. From the conservative perspective, the expansion of the federal government poses its own dangers to freedom and democracy. With the growth of the administrative state, unaccountable bureaucrats usurp the law-making powers of elected representatives, while local control—a central bulwark of freedom under our federalist system—is eroded. In a sense, America’s long-running political argument has turned around the question of whether, in what ways, and to what extent the growth of centralized government protects or erodes freedom. The California curriculum gives students the resources to understand only a single side of this debate.

As such, Republican presidents from Calvin Coolidge through Ronald Reagan are painted in caricature, when they are not all but ignored. Reagan, for example, is credited with appealing to social conservatives who sought “to oppose many safety-net programs.” Actually, Reagan popularized the use of the term “safety net” when he said in 1981, “All those with true need can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts.”

With the Claremont Institute, an academic center based in California, having inspired a deep critique of early 20th century progressivism, and having pioneered the revival of interest in the conservatism of Calvin Coolidge, it should not have been difficult for curriculum writers to do justice to the other side of the political equation.

On economics, as Evers points out, contestable Keynesian explanations for the Great Depression are floated, while explanations offered by the Chicago School (founded by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman) or the Austrian School (typified by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek) are omitted. Yet previous California content standards called for students to analyze alternative explanations for the Great Depression.

In short, California’s proposed new K-12 history and social science curriculum is a carnival of leftist bias and distortion. If it receives final approval, the problem is likely to spread across the country, as publishers forced to meet the demands of the most populous state offer their revised textbooks nationally.

There is still time to oppose these proposed curriculum revisions. The California State Board of Education meets on July 13 of this year to consider final approval. If the changes cannot be stopped, states, school districts, and parents who prefer a more fair and traditional approach to American history will need to redouble their efforts to monitor textbook adoption. Textbooks compatible with the new California curriculum should be systematically avoided.

The best long-run solution would be the creation of an educational testing company advised by the finest traditionally-inclined scholars and capable both of competing with the College Board’s leftist AP curriculum, and of authorizing and encouraging the creation of new and better American history textbooks.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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