American Birthright: A Response to Critics

David Randall

Kathryn Joyce in Salon and education scholar Diane Ravitch on her blog have written critiques of American Birthright: The Civics Alliance’s Model K-12 Social Studies Standards. Their critiques merit a brief rebuttal.

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American Birthright: The Civics Alliance’s Model K-12 Social Studies Standards was published to reform American social studies standards. The defenders of the radical education establishment have begun to respond, not least by presenting a distorted caricature of what American Birthright is.

Kathryn Joyce in Salon finds a social studies education professor who attacked American Birthright on Twitter to say “he was particularly concerned about ‘a clear undertone’ in American Birthright suggesting “that the U.S. is a Christian nation founded on Christian values and beliefs.” The proof? “Passages calling for curricula to emphasize ‘the role of faith in sustaining and extending liberty’ and describing America’s founding principles as ‘rooted in Christian thought.’” The sub-header of the Salon article takes this quoted “undertone” to scream that American Birthright “pushes Christianity.”

Education scholar Diane Ravitch, citing Joyce’s article on her blog, builds upon this tendentious construction to add, “These new rightwing curriculum writers want to impose the evangelical Christian worldview on America’s children. They want to force their fundamentalists ideology on everyone. Once they have gained control of the Governor’s office, they want to gain control of the schools and use them as centers of indoctrination.”

Joyce and Ravitch are certainly correct that the Civics Alliance, and our friends among the world of education reformers, oppose the plans of the radical education establishment to revolutionize America’s schools.

We oppose radical identity politics indoctrination, sometimes labeled Critical Race Theory, and we oppose the vocational training in progressive activism that goes by the name of “action civics.” We have drafted model legislation to bar it in public school social studies instruction and we are delighted that a version of our model legislation was adopted in Texas. We applaud everything Governor Ron DeSantis has done to reform civics education in Florida.

We oppose all politicization of instruction, especially what is justified as forwarding so-called “anti-racism,” “social justice,” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

We believe that it is essential to provide discrete instruction in Western Civilization, so that students can learn the coherent narrative of the ideals and institutions of liberty embedded in its history.

We believe that it is impossible to understand America’s ideals of liberty without understanding the long history of Jewish and Christian religious thought, and in particular the faiths that animated Protestant Englishmen in early modern England and colonial America.

We believe that children in kindergarten and elementary school ought to learn the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and brief accounts of the heroes and heroines who dedicated themselves to America and its ideals of liberty.

In general, we have crafted American Birthright to teach students to identify the ideals, institutions, and individual examples of human liberty, individualism, religious freedom, and republican self-government; assess the extent to which civilizations have fulfilled these ideals; and describe how the evolution of these ideals in different times and places has contributed to the formation of modern American ideals.

Some of our critics understand what we favor and substantively disagree with our aims. We believe their disagreement should discredit them with the American public.

But some of what our critics state is at best misleading.

  • Joyce states that, “Some of the claims made to bolster American Birthright have been misleading, as when the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions — another member of the coalition behind the document — suggested that Kentucky’s current standards mean students don’t learn about figures like Ben Franklin or Abraham Lincoln.” Kentucky’s current standards do not mention these figures—and Kentucky law states that “The statewide assessments shall not include any academic standards not approved by the board under subsection (2) of this section.” Kentucky’s teachers have no incentive to teach about Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln, Kentucky’s students have no incentive to learn about them, and the Bluegrass Institute’s claims therefore seem entirely justified.
  • Ravitch states that, “the goal of the new curriculum is to delete the accurate and tragic facts about racism, past and present.” American Birthright is a model social studies standard, not a curriculum—and it is a standard whose Grade 11 United States History, for example, includes as suggested primary sources John Woolman’s Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754); John Ross’ “Memorial and Protest of the Cherokee Nation” (1836); Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day speech at Rochester, New York (1852); Abraham Lincoln’s “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision” (1857); Thaddeus Stevens’ “Reconstruction” (1867); William Jennings Bryan’s The Paralyzing Influence of Imperialism (1900); the Niagara Movement Declaration of Principles (1905); Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938); Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1941); and Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech (1963) and his Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963). The same United States History standards also include subject items that mention explicitly the Trail of Tears, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852), the rise of Jim Crow laws, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), minstrel shows, the post-Civil War struggles of African Americans and women to gain basic civil rights, the Ku Klux Klan, the Tulsa Race Massacre, A. Philip Randolph and the efforts to eliminate employment discrimination, and the origins, goals, key events, and accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement. The Grade 11 United States History standards alone suggest that Ravitch has not accurately stated our intentions.
  • Ravitch states that, “These new rightwing curriculum writers want to impose the evangelical Christian worldview on America’s children.” We have the highest esteem for evangelical Christians, we certainly think that civics education should teach a republican virtue congruent with the virtues esteemed by evangelical Christians, and we likewise think an accurate portrayal of American history entirely congruent with evangelical faith. Yet our curriculum neither requires nor proselytizes for evangelical Christianity. Our largest source, after all, was the 2003 Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework, which was a creation of the (not notably evangelical) Massachusetts Department of Education. Readers should note that American Birthright includes sentences such as “Humanity spread from its cradle in Africa throughout the world,” which would bar American Birthright from being adopted in toto by schools that espouse Biblical literalism. These facts likewise suggest that Ravitch has not accurately stated our intentions.

I am sure that neither Joyce nor Ravitch would have crafted social studies standards as we have—and we certainly have not crafted social studies standards as they would have. But their polemical portrait does not describe American Birthright. I encourage readers to take a look at the standards for themselves.


David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars and Executive Director of the Civics Alliance.

Image: Samuel Branch, Public Domain

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