Our History, and Theirs

Here in Minnesota, there has been a political skirmish over the Department of Education’s adoption of new K-12 educational standards for social studies, including history. The current revision has been drafted by education professionals and is proceeding through the rulemaking process; the legislature need not adopt or consent to the new standards. A few days ago, Republican leaders in the House wrote to Governor Mark Dayton, asking him to “veto” the proposed standards.

At National Review, John Fonte offers a critical look at the new guidelines, which incorporate hackneyed liberal assumptions at various points. What Fonte writes is correct, but not entirely balanced. The social studies standards, which you can access here, are by no means all bad. They are ambitious, for one thing; a high school student who mastered the many topics covered by the standards would be well-educated by today’s standards. Nor are they all liberal. Much of what is said about economics is good. The standards are, for example, pro-free trade.

But the new history guidelines suffer from the failings of modern academia. As you read them, you imagine a senile old man, shuffling around in his pajamas and muttering, “Race, class, gender…race, class, gender.” Everything is about demographic interest groups. Thus:

Compare and contrast the impact of the American Revolution on different groups within the 13 colonies that made up the new United States. (Revolution and a New Nation: 1754-1800)

For example: Groups—Women, Patriots, Loyalists, indigenous people, enslaved Africans, free blacks.

This kind of balkanization is constant:

Describe the effects of the Civil War on Americans in the north, south and west, including liberated African-Americans, women, former slaveholders and indigenous peoples. (Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850-1877)

For example: Reconstruction, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Black Codes, sharecropping, National and American Woman Suffrage Associations, Homestead Act.

One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics. And an astonishing amount of space is devoted to American Indians, who, with all due respect, represent a tiny sliver of the population, even in Minnesota.

On occasion, the standards are simply wrong. For instance:

The United States government has specific functions that are determined by the way that power is delegated and controlled among various bodies: the three levels (federal, state, local) and the three branches (legislative, executive, judicial) of government.

That just isn’t right. The United States government has “specific functions that are determined by” the Constitution. Then there is this bit of ignorance:

As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. (Development of an industrial United States: 1870-1920)

Putting aside the conundrum of what “institutionalized racism” is supposed to mean, this recitation is incorrect. Big business had nothing to do with racism, institutionalized or otherwise. Big business, to the extent it existed pre-Civil War, was located in the Northeast, which was hostile to slavery. The South, where slavery reigned under the aegis of the Democratic Party, suffered from a severe lack of big business, both before and after the Civil War. And, of course, slavery and segregation existed in the rural South, not the “urbanized” North. Empirical (i.e., real) history has shown that race discrimination flourished in non-competitive environments, like state and local governments and regulated utilities, not in the business world where competitive pressure leads companies to hire the best employees they can find, regardless of race, etc. Whatever the proper role of state standards might be, it should not include drumming falsehoods into our students’ heads.

Beyond the tiresome (race, class, gender, zzz…) and the false (big business causes racism), an obvious feature of the new social studies standards is the banishment of any sense of the heroic in American history. If your child should attend public school in Minnesota under these guidelines, he or she will learn a lot more about the Anishinaabe than about James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson. Those founders are mentioned just once:

Identify historically significant people during the period of the American Revolution; explain how their actions contributed to the development of American political culture.

For example: Historically significant people might include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Mercy Otis Warren, Joseph Brandt, Elizabeth Freeman.

Joseph Brandt? I had no idea either, but I looked him up. He was a Mohawk Indian, which explains his presence on the list. But that isn’t the worst of it: the standards never mention Abraham Lincoln, or Ronald Reagan, or, as far as I can see, any Republican president.

If you want to learn about heroic American history–and most of American history, viewed objectively, is heroic–you have to get away from teachers and academics, most of whom are imbued with anti-American bias, and listen to ordinary citizens. Like Wayne Jorgenson, an amateur historian who recently published a book about the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment titled Every Man Did His Duty. We have written several times about the 1st Minnesota, one of the Union’s most renowned Civil War units, but not recently. Their story cannot be told too often. A small town newspaper, the Mankato Free Press, tells it in a way that a cookie-cutter urban Democratic Party paper never would:

“There was a mystique to the Minnesota men — the character they had compared to what I call the ‘city boys’ out east. The ones who came out here in the 1860s, they were farming, logging, surviving, shooting guns. All these pioneering traits made them stronger and better soldiers.”

Jorgenson said the 1st quickly attracted attention from the generals, who often dealt with high rates of desertion and panic during battle. The unit’s actions at Bull Run, which deteriorated into a haphazard retreat, particularly caught attention.

“It was how they carried themselves. At Bull Run they were one of the last ones pulled out of battle and they retreated orderly, not running off pell-mell. That impressed the generals. They never once lost their flag and they never broke and ran.”

That reputation for toughness was put to bloody use at Gettysburg. The 1st Minnesota was being held in reserve to fill gaps if trouble arose. When Confederate soldiers threatened to take Cemetery Ridge and break the Union line — perhaps turning the tide of the battle — some 260 1st Minnesota soldiers were sent into a force of 1,500 to 1,800 Confederates. The unit was decimated, but the time they bought allowed the Union to hold its lines.

That is an understated description of the most famous, and most important, suicide charge in the history of the United States Army. The men of the 1st Minnesota suffered an appalling 82% casualty rate, but they achieved their mission, stopping the Confederate attack on the center of the Union line in its tracks when the Battle of Gettysburg hung in the balance. Calvin Coolidge–another great American who has no place in Minnesota’s history guidelines–said:

Colonel Colvill [who commanded the regiment] and those eight companies of the 1st Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.

Jorgenson tells the story of William Wikoff, a Mankato resident who enlisted in the 1st Minnesota:

Prior to the battle of Bull Run, a gravely ill Wikoff insisted on joining the fight. The battle went poorly for the North, leading the Federals into a chaotic retreat toward Washington.

William Wikoff

Wikoff, who suffered an unspecified injury in battle, didn’t arrive back in Washington for three days and was listed among those killed.

In a letter to a friend back home, Wikoff noted his obituary had been printed in the Mankato Independent: “Fortunate man what can read his own obituary.”

After being hospitalized following Bull Run, Wikoff was offered a medical discharge but refused. Prior to a battle at Winchester, Wikoff wrote: “If it should be my lot to die on the battlefield, it will be a consolation to my friends to know that I died serving my country in the darkest hour of history.”

While Wikoff survived that battle and others, he and the 1st were soon to take part in their bloodiest action — one that would enshrine them in Civil War history.

The 1st had suffered high casualties at the battles of First Bull Run (20 percent) and Antietam (28 percent). But it was at the Battle of Gettysburg where the 1st suffered a catastrophic 82 percent casualty rate.

The men of the 1st are most remembered for their actions on July 2, 1863, during the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg, where the regiment prevented the Confederates from pushing the Federals off of Cemetery Ridge, a position that was to be crucial in the battle.

In an attempt to gain time to hold the position, the 1st was ordered to charge into a situation that had them outmanned by at least 5 to 1.

In the assault 215 of the 1st were killed or wounded while 47 men survived and continued to fight — none turned in flight and the unit’s flag was not lost to the enemy.

During the July 2 charge, Wikoff was was on the regiment’s far left flank. During the ensuing fight, Wikoff was shot through the heart and died instantly.

The bullet-riddled flag that the 1st Minnesota carried down the slope of Cemetery Ridge is on display today at the State Capitol in St. Paul. Put yourself in the position of a Minnesota schoolboy or girl: would you rather squirm through the tired race-class-gender platitudes that are already a relic of the past, or thrill to the stories of William Wikoff and his fellow heroes of the 1st Minnesota? The question answers itself, but most of the people who run our schools don’t want our kids to be inspired by patriotic stories. They have a different agenda. One thing I forgot to mention. John Fonte writes:

The old Standards emphasized American citizenship and referred to the sacrifices that earlier generations of Americans had made “to win and keep liberty and justice.” They included “patriotism” as a civic value.

The new 2012 Standards speak in generic terms of “civic life in the twenty-first century.” References to a specific American citizenship are rare. “Patriotism” is no longer included in the long list of “civic values.” Loyola University, Baltimore Professor Diana Schaub describes this new tendency as “civics without a country.”

Exactly. What is happening in Minnesota is going on in the other 49 states, too.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.