About The State Superintendent’s Perspective On Social Studies Standards

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s rapid and sustained defense of her desire to remove certain words from the NC Social Studies curriculum standards was again on display in a new post on EdNC.org just a day after another State Board of Education meeting that highlighted revising those standards.

In particular Truitt wants to do the following:

Truitt’s perspective simply lacks substance under a shiny veneer that is book-ended with quotes from Plutarch and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (with a nod to the Oxford English Dictionary).

No doubt that Plutarch is considered a reliable source of history. His works were even a primary source for Shakespeare 1500 years later. But it is a little ironic that Truitt begin framing her piece with a quote from Plutarch for a couple reasons.

First, it seems that Truitt is using the words “history” and “social studies” interchangably. They are not the same. Yes, history “requires knowledge of facts, dates, names, places, events, and ideas” as Truitt states, but “social studies” encompasses so much more. History is a study of past events; “social studies” is the study of society as a whole. History is under the umbrella of social studies. To frame the social studies standards through the lens of history with the words of someone’s opinion about history may not be the best way present an entire curriculum.

And Plutarch is usually credited with giving us an account of the man known as Spartacus who was supposedly the leader of the greatest and most successful slave revolt in the ancient Roman Empire. Spartacus sought to escape enslavement from Rome. Aside from what Hollywood may have added in the Kirk Douglas movie, it is hard to not see Rome’s systematic use of castes and enslavement.

Truitt continues,

“Students in North Carolina public schools study history throughout the entirety of their public school experience. While the public at large might not agree as to why it’s important that students learn geography, civics, and history, the North Carolina State Board of Education believes that our collective social studies standards must reflect the nation’s diversity and that the successes, contributions, and struggles of multiple groups and individuals should be included.” 

This emphasis she places on “geography, civics, and history” seems to ignore that fact that now high school students have to take a personal finance course that displaced an American History class, That very finance course does not even address wealth gaps along racial lines, income gaps along gender lines, and the very systematic discrimination that exists de jure segregation that affects the ability of people to build wealth.

Yes Lincoln “ended the United States’ participation in what had been more than 9,000 years of legalized slavery and human bondage in most parts of the world.” But that extra unit of American History might help students explore the effects of Reconstruction and how continued racism was weaved into so many policies and laws within our legal and social systems that it took another hundred years for a Civil Rights Act to be passed.

Truitt then says, “However, it is important to remember that history itself doesn’t provide the sole explanation for why we have injustices, racism, and discrimination today, be they institutionalized or localized.” But we are not just dealing with history. We are dealing with social studies – the critical reflection of our society. And with her paraphrase of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (“the Constitution is the very document that the likes of Thurgood Marshall used to bring systemic change to our country“), she actually is using the word that she does not even want to be in the standards: systemic.

Using Dr. King’s words as a final buttress to an argument in not using the word “systemic” in the social studies curriculum might be the most empty of all. Honestly, it is hard to imagine a person in the last century who fought as hard as King did against systems and structures. He was killed for leading that fight. Even in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written to local clergy members, King called out the systematic nature of racism. In referring to the police he wrote, “It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation.”

Plutarch. Rice. King. All spoke about systematic forces in society. Our standards can as well.