Commentary

Commentary: Time for governor to go back to school

February 14, 2022 7:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee giving his fourth State of the State address. Jan. 19, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee giving his fourth State of the State address. Jan. 19, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Memo to Gov. Bill Lee and staff: Read your source material before you quote it in a State of State address.

The governor, invoking President RonaldReagan, called for Tennessee students to be “informed patriots” during his recent State of the State, saying it is important “we teach true American history, unbiased and non-political.”  And he approvingly noted, “The Fordham Institute recently ranked us as one of the top five states for civics education.”

The Fordham Institute’s report would have been worth the governor and his staff’s time to read in its entirety.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is Fordham’s president emeritus, and that name may ring a bell for some: Checker, as he is known, was a Vanderbilt professor and education guru behind Gov. Lamar Alexander’s Master Teacher/Better Schools plan in the early 1980s.  He is also something of a Moynihan Democrat, although he would likely dispute that characterization.

He is certainly someone who takes pleasure in confounding his critics, on the right and the left, in the best spirit of his late boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But back to the Fordham report:

“Is America a racist country? Or the greatest nation on earth? Or both or neither or some of each,” begins the forward written by Finn and a colleague.

Their answer: “For the sake of our children’s education (and for any number of other reasons), we need a  more thoughtful and balanced starting point for the whole conversation – one that leaves space for nuance, mutual understanding, and hope for the future.”

Fordham Institute’s critique of Tennessee’s civics curriculum  argues seeks a balanced and critical look at the nation and state’s history but could be improved in its treatments of slavery, racism and discrimination. It is not a curriculum that blithely proclaims “exceptionalism” like the governor or invites the “culture wars.”

They go on to write: “One potential response to this challenge is to abandon the quest for consensus, plunge into schismatic politics and culture wars, and just duke it out. (See for example, President Trump’s 1776 Commission and The New York Times’s 1619 Project.)”

So, why did Fordham give Tennessee an A- for its civics and history standards?

For civics, it found the standards “thorough and rigorous,” beginning “strong” in early grades and going in-depth in middle and high school grades.  The group thought generally the same of the history standards.

As for the content of the standards, it’s worth looking at Fordham’s take on how Tennessee teachers are supposed to deal with the issues of slavery, racism and discrimination:

“The first half of fifth grade then completes the first U.S. History cycle, with specific references to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments and child labor laws, as well as Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Notably, there is little coverage of the post–Civil War assault on African Americans’ rights. However, this topic is addressed in commendable detail in the second half of fifth grade, which is devoted to Tennessee history. Here, one finds specific references to black codes and Jim Crow laws, the impact of the Tennessee’s 1870 constitution on poll taxes and segregation, and “how the end of Reconstruction impacted Tennessee’s African American elected officials” …”

Or: “Regional economic development, the expansion of slavery, and westward expansion are covered solidly, but the reform movements are missing save for abolitionism. The centrality of slavery to the sectional dispute is correctly invoked, but details are reduced to a bare list of events. The Civil War is well covered, but Reconstruction is rushed, noting the Amendments, conflicting Reconstruction plans, and Compromise of 1877 without explaining them.”

And finally: “A separate topic addresses the Civil Rights movement from Brown v. Board of Education through various protests, Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, and expansion of rights movements to American Indians, Latinos, and women (though not LGBT).”

Fordham’s analysis doesn’t address issues such as the quality of textbooks used, resources and support given to teachers, or the use of original source materials to supplement the textbooks, but it clearly identifies a curriculum that it believes seeks a balanced and critical look at the nation and state’s history but could be improved in its treatments of slavery, racism and discrimination.

It is not a curriculum that blithely proclaims “exceptionalism” like the governor or invites the “culture wars” as waged by institutions like Hillsdale College whose president chaired the Trump 1776 Commission and which Lee has invited to establish a beachhead of its charter schools in the state.  Perhaps, the governor, his staff, and state Republican lawmakers whose anti-critical race theory legislation would appear to be at odds with these standards should retake a middle school Tennessee civics or history course or two.

Fifth grade sounds about right.

 

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Jim O'Hara
Jim O'Hara

Jim O’Hara Jim O’Hara covered the Master Teacher/Better Schools debates in the General Assembly as a Tennessean political reporter in the 1980s. He also served as Associate Commissioner for Public Affairs at the Food and Drug Administration from 1993-1997 and Associate Administrator for External Affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency from 2012-2013.

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