Home > Uncategorized > A Debate Over the word “Democracy” in Michigan’s Social Studies Curriculum Lays Bare Conservatives’ Opposition to the Term… and the Concept

A Debate Over the word “Democracy” in Michigan’s Social Studies Curriculum Lays Bare Conservatives’ Opposition to the Term… and the Concept

April 8, 2019

A front page article by Dana Goldstein in today’s NYTimes should give everyone in the nation pause. Titled “Is the US a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values“, the article describes a five-year battle over the definition of the government of our country. In a country where it is seemingly impossible to achieve consensus on the teaching of subjects like reading and mathematics— let alone evolution, climate change, and reproduction— it is not surprising that reaching a consensus on social studies is difficult. But unlike the debates where the facts are clear, social studies content focuses on shared values, and as one who worked in public education for four decades I would have thought that politicians, parents, teachers, and voters would readily agree that we live in a democracy. I write this knowing that I do not believe it is the case— but believing that no organized group would want to argue the fact. As Ms. Goldstein writes, though, I am off-base with that presumption: a proposed revision of Michigan’s standards drops the word “democratic” from “core democratic values,” and reduces the use of the word “democracy”. Why?

The changes were made after a group of prominent conservatives helped revise the standards. They drew attention to a long-simmering debate over whether “republic” is a better term than “democracy” to describe the American form of government.

That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate. But members of the conservative group also brought to the table the argument that K-12 social studies should be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents.

They contended that the curriculum ought to focus more on the nation’s triumphs than its sins.And they pushed for revisions that eliminated “climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights.

Given a desire to base social studies on “a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents”  the elimination of the terms “…”climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights” makes perfect sense! After all, the founders didn’t want to allow anyone but white, male landowners to vote. And those who penned the original documents could not foresee the impact that industrialization, advances in medical science, and changing morays might have nearly 250 years in the future.  Indeed, the founders realized that they were not writing a set of commandments since they provided a means of amending their original document, probably because they realized that 250 years prior to the writing of the Constitution literacy was barely in place and the notion of democracy was fanciful given the monarchies and feudal economic systems in place.

The article describes the protracted process that carefully expanded the number of participants in the writing process as it attempted to draft a set of standards that would allow every student in the state to “see themselves” in the instruction. But despite all of the efforts to be inclusive, at this juncture the definition of our government remains elusive. Ms. Goldstein writes:

But in the days before the document was to be sent to the State Board of Education, fundamental questions about how to describe American government and citizenship had not been resolved.

It was not just that some Democratic-leaning committee members liked the term “democracy” while some Republican-leaning members preferred “republic.” The debate was really about bigger disagreements that transcended party lines: about how to deal with populism and protest, and about whether the United States is a unified entity of citizens or a conglomeration of groups divided by race, class, language and other identities.

On March 7, the heads of all the subcommittees gathered at the Historical Society of Michigan in Lansing to go through the draft one last time. The laptop screen of the head writer, a district social studies consultant named Dave Johnson, was projected onto the wall as he made last-minute revisions in a Google document.

It strikes me that process of developing the standards, something I called “management by rough draft” when I was leading schools and school districts, is an apt description of our governing model at it’s best. And when the process was complete, here’s how it ended up:

The list of core values that the standards writers eventually agreed on was “equality; liberty; justice and fairness; unalienable individual rights (including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness); consent of governed; truth; common good.”

And after months of sometimes bitter debate, the group decided these values could still be called “democratic.” As part of a compromise, the nation’s political system would be referred to primarily as “American government,” but also, in some instances, “constitutional government” and — yes — “democracy.”

But the conservative lawmaker who protested initially and whose protests led to the lengthy and contentious debate, was not pleased.

Mr. Colbeck, the former state senator who had helped write the previous draft, was displeased. Calling the nation a democracy was not “politically neutral and accurate,” he said.

As one who leans left, I agree. I believe we are now living in a plutocracy…. and I would have to believe that Mr. Colbeck and his anti-democratic colleagues who support an originalist interpretation of the Constitution would be OK with that. After all, Mr. Colbeck is a white male who owns land… HE would be able to participate in making decisions about the direction our country is headed.

In the end, Ms. Goldstein final sentence concludes that our debate about who we are will continue…. and implicitly agrees that the management-by-rough-draft will persist:

The process of retelling the nation’s history — deciding what gets left out and who is heard from — never ends.

I hope she is right… and that the pendulum that is now swung in the direction of the plutocrats who want to change the core values of our nation swings to the left.

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