Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Paul Spies: Social Studies Standards Won't Promote Dr. King's Cause

Recent racist incidents at Mounds View High School have made the news, and they are not uncommon in schools, universities, workplaces and neighborhoods. Contrary to the beliefs of many of my fellow white Minnesotans and Americans, Martin Luther King's dream has not yet come to life. And, if the final draft social studies standards are passed by the legislature, racism will continue to ferment in our state rather than be challenged by the youth that will lead us in the future.

Vague knowledge of Dr. King is required in Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, and high school in the proposed standards. Some knowledge of the Civil Rights movement is required in 7th grade and high school. However, of the more than 22,000 words in the 59-page proposed standards document, the word "racism" is only mentioned once in 7th grade when students are supposed to study "segregation and racism" during the period of 1877-1916.

One of the biggest criticisms levied against the first draft social studies standards was that they were too focused on the experiences of white Americans and Europeans. While some additions have made the standards more inclusive, there are still serious omissions and distortions that serve to marginalize the experiences and contributions of the diverse people that make up our great country.

For instance, K-12 students are not required to learn anything about the experiences and contributions of Latinos in United States history, including Dr. King's contemporary Cesar Chavez, despite the fact that one-third of this country used to be part of Mexico and Latinos of various nationalities are now the largest ethnic minority group in the United States. Furthermore, while there are 27 required topics about ancient Greece imbedded in benchmarks, there are no standards or benchmarks requiring students to learn about ancient Egypt despite the fact that it lasted much longer and was envied by the Greeks. Amazingly, there is no mention in the standards of apartheid in South Africa or of Nelson Mandela. And, yes, Columbus is still to be treated as a hero rather than a complex figure that contributed to the genocide of Native Americans.

Why is a white, middle-class, college-educated man with many privileges so upset about the cultural and gender bias in the proposed standards? I received a Eurocentric suburban education able to pass tests, write papers and read, but I was ill-equipped to bring understanding and empathy to any substantive conversation with persons of color at home or abroad. As our society and world become more connected, people in the 21st century need to have a deep understanding of many different cultures and histories in order to be good neighbors, citizens and workers.

Why are the proposed standards still insufficiently inclusive? Perhaps it is because Commissioner Yecke selected people to work on the final draft standards whom often publicly demonstrated and admitted gaps in content knowledge and personal experience dealing with diverse cultures and histories. Perhaps it is because only one of 14 writing committee members and none of the four consultants chosen by Commissioner Yecke are persons of color.

While I will assume that Commissioner Yecke and her writing committee did not intend to write discriminatory standards, it doesn't mean that the proposed standards aren't both implicitly and explicitly racist. If approved, these standards and the way they were crafted is a form of institutionalized racism that I'm confident Dr. King would have resisted. It will be hard for our youth to judge someone by the "content of their character and not the color of their skin" as King dreamed if they will be taught through a state-mandated curriculum to be ignorant of themselves and others.

While I also assume most students and adults in Minnesota don't condone the explicitly racist behavior that Dr. King fought against, there are many forms and degrees of racism. White denial of racism is one of them. A person does not have to be a card-carrying member of the KKK to have thoughts or behave in ways that subtlety support white racial superiority and the continued educational and economic privilege whites inherently possess in our society.

Since the standards and benchmarks are still too numerous and must be reduced, the responsibility now lies with our mostly white legislators of all political parties to take a stand for justice in the spirit of the courageous leader whose name now labels the street where our state Capitol is located.

Paul Spies taught social studies for seven years in urban and suburban high schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, and southern Africa. He is co-founder of Minnesotans Against Proposed Social Studies Standards www.mapsss.org and can be reached at paulcspies@msn.com