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Fundamental Character of US at the Heart of Virginia’s School Curriculum Debate

While some have praised the recent changes to Virginia’s social studies history standards, the state Board of Education has largely received opposition to the January draft standards, which are under scrutiny from progressive organizations and academic groups.

After the newly-elected board members appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin questioned the length of the initial 400-page “collaborative” social studies standards draft released in August (pdf), the Virginia Department of Education began a revision process that resulted in a second draft being released in November and finally a third draft presented in January.

While many conservatives praised the January draft, progressive professional groups criticized the document, saying that it does not reflect the state’s diverse voices and instead glorified America’s “racist” history, calling America’s very character into question.

Monica Hutchinson, vice president for Henrico County NAACP, called the November draft a “new revisionist whitewashed” version of history and urged the board to reject the document.

Epoch Times Photo
Members of the public attend the Virginia Board of Education’s public meeting in November 2022. (Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education)

“These new standards revert back to teaching history from a very white-centered point of view, full of white savior complex,” Hutchinson said during the Board of Education’s November public comment meeting.

Hutchinson made an unsubstantiated claim that important black historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass had been taken out of the earlier draft and “hastily” added back in.

“We are the threat to the system of white supremacy and it’s time for all of us to dismantle it once and for all,” added Hutchinson. “These new proposed standards are disrespectful and harmful to many families like mine.”

The January draft standards (pdf) include an introduction labeled “guiding principles,” which sets a tone of patriotism and states that founding documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are “remarkable documents.”

Epoch Times Photo
“The Signing of the Declaration of Independence,” painted by John Trumbull, 1819. (Public Domain)

Another speaker at the November public hearing, Carol Bauer, vice president of the Virginia Education Association (VEA)—an affiliate of NEA, the nation’s largest teacher’s union—also criticized the January draft.

“The standards are full of overt political bias, outdated language to describe enslaved people and American Indians, highly subjective framing of the American moralism and conservative ideals, as well as coded racist overtures throughout,” said Bauer during the public hearing. “Equally damning” was the fact that LGBT plus history was left out, she said.

James Fedderman, president of the VEA, also spoke against the proposed standards at a board meeting.

“Its political aim is clear in the introduction, which leads to a set of partisan values. Further, the document does not appear to consider the full complexity of our past,” Fedderman said.

Slavery a Stain, Not Essence of America

Steven Smith, professor of political science at Yale University, said that while nationalism can go to extremes and be exclusionary, patriotism is the belief in the adherence to the founding principles that all people have equal worth, that the United States is a country of laws, and that it strives toward the ideals set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

In a 2021 speech at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Arizona, Smith criticized the history put forth by the 1619 Project for trying to rewrite history because it negates the effort by the founders and early Americans to abolish slavery.

Epoch Times Photo
The book “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” is displayed at a bookstore in New York on Nov. 17, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“Such a view is based on a radical simplification and reduction of all American history to a single theme [and] overlooks the fact that, for example, even at the time of the American founding, the institution of slavery was highly contested,” he said.

Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were heads of abolitionist societies in Pennsylvania and New York, said Smith.

“One reason I cannot accept this view of America as a white supremacist nation is that it denies the efforts of generations of Americans, both black and white, in their struggle to achieve a more perfect union. Slavery may be an irreparable stain on America, but it is not the essence of America,” Smith said.

Virginia public school parent Stephanie Lundquist-Arora—whose great-grandfathers, grandfathers, father, brother, and husband served in the U.S. military—told The Epoch Times that the claims of the draft history standards promoting white supremacy and racism are false.

“These assertions are deplorable and manipulative, meant to gaslight the public,” Lundquist-Arora said as she criticized progressive activists for promoting divisiveness.

She believes the guiding principles of the draft standards are good.

“The new standards support patriotic sentiments, like the remarkability of our founding documents, which unite us as Americans,” she said.

In a joint letter to the Virginia Board of Education (pdf), Civics Alliance and the National Association of Scholars—a nonprofit that promotes intellectual freedom and reform in higher education—praised the January draft for having a patriotic focus and for the removal of “radical polemic.”

Board Members Conflicted

While the Youngkin-appointed majority accepted the January draft standards for the first review in a 5–3 vote, former Gov. Ralph Northam’s appointees—board President Daniel Gecker, Vice President Tammy Mann, and Anne Holton—all agreed they did not share the values expressed in the draft.

“There are aspects of the version that I expect is going to end up going out that just don’t reflect my values,” said Gecker during a Feb. 2 board meeting, adding that he does not believe the draft can be improved enough to get the support of academic opponents.

“You cannot reference the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as remarkable documents without also acknowledging that they contain fundamental flaws of enshrining slavery and limiting the protections that they provided only to white, propertied men,” Holton said during a Feb. 1 board meeting.

Gecker implied that some board members were being loyal to the governor who appointed them and not to constituents. Mann said she would prefer to move the August collaborative set of standards forward because it better reflects what the public wants and has more rigor.

Holton made two motions, preferably to move the August collaborative draft standards forward, and alternatively, to move the January draft standard with “political” elements like the guiding principles taken out.

Both motions were denied by the majority of members.

Gecker said he does not believe there will be enough time left after the six public comment meetings in March to change the draft enough to satisfy the community organizations that currently oppose the document.

After the public comment meetings, the board will hash out any other changes to the draft in April and send it to the state Department of Education for final edits.

August Draft

In late 2020, the African American History Education Commission (AAHEC), a state commission established by Northam, made recommendations on how to teach a more “inclusive history,” and their ideas were incorporated into the August collaborative draft social studies standards.

Many people were upset that the August standards were not adopted after parents and professional organizations helped author them.

“What you said to parents who look like me, is that our voices don’t count and that the educational experiences of our children aren’t as important as those of other children,” said Makya Renée Little, who helped draft the August standards via the AAHEC.

Tiffany Lewis, a Virginia mother of three, said that as a descendant of those who survived enslavement and faced racism first-hand, she feels that the January draft is inadequate in addressing black history and wants the board to adopt the August collaborative draft because she said it offers a more complete history.

Epoch Times Photo
Slaves plant sweet potatoes on the Cassina Point Plantation in South Carolina in 1862. (Library of Congress)

Wesley Hedgepeth, president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, told The Epoch Times in a recent interview that he believes there were some important parts of history left out of the January draft.

“As an example … the 11th grade Virginia and United States History class. It begins with the age of exploration from the Europeans, which really leaves out that tens of thousands of years prior to European settlement and colonization, that the indigenous people of North America experienced,” Hedgepeth said.

He thinks that because August’s collaborative set of standards covers indigenous history before the settlers arrived, it gives a more “full picture” of American history.

“Students should engage in these diverse ideas in ways that do not glorify or defend those who have engaged in historic enslavement, misogyny, homophobia, genocide,” Hedgepeth said during the Feb. 2 public comment meeting.

Former board member Suparna Dutta was ousted from the board because her nomination was voted down by Democrats in the Virginia Assembly who accused her of being aligned with white supremacist groups after she praised the founding fathers.

Dutta said supporters of the January draft reached out to her to express their support for the proposal.

Sirlekha Palle, a parent of two children who were educated in Virginia public schools, told The Epoch Times that children should be taught facts that are not filtered through a critical race theory lens.

“We’re not saying that you shouldn’t be teaching the history. It’s about your subjectivity driving the narrative to the children,” Palle said. “I think patriotic education is a good education. I think the problem is quite the opposite, that people don’t love their country.”

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