A growing number of state legislatures have mandated primary sources in American history classrooms to eliminate racial bias from K-12 public education at the start of the school year.
Ten states have passed laws requiring primary sources, according to the Ohio-based Ashbrook Center, an independent program of Ashland University that provides basic materials and trains teachers in their use. The new requirements created a spike in the number of teachers contacting the centre, which was launched in 1983.
“Studying the words of those who have truly lived and breathed American history fosters a true understanding, appreciation, and application of our past to the challenges we face today, without bias or whitewashing,” said Jeff Sikkenga, Director from the center, in an e-mail. .
A political science professor at a private Christian university, Mr Sikkenga said 30,000 teachers, mostly in public schools, will use the center’s materials this year.
Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado are mandating primary sources for the first time.
New Kentucky law requires public schools to use copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other founding documents from a list provided by Ashbrook.
In Arizona, the 2008 House Bill prescribes lessons on “the original intent of America’s founding documents” and on “defending the blessings of freedom inherited from previous generations and guaranteed by the American Constitution”.
Colorado law requires teachers to cover the nation’s founding documents and basic civic knowledge.
“It depends on the teacher and the philosophy of the school or district on how the materials are interpreted,” said Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver.
The other seven states that have recently passed laws requiring primary sources are Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming.
The Florida law will take effect at the start of the 2023-24 school year.
South Carolina Senate Bill 38 specifies that schools must teach “the Constitution of the United States, the Federalist documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Declaration of Independence to every student.”
The emphasis on primary sources comes amid reports of declining civic knowledge. Last week, an annual poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 56% of adults could not name the three branches of federal government – executive, legislative and judicial – and less than a quarter knew the one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Kimberly Fletcher, president of the conservative group Moms for America, says using primary sources addresses many parents’ concern that textbooks indoctrinate students with a liberal bias while ignoring basic knowledge.
“The source documents are the most accurate account of the story,” Ms Fletcher said in an email. “If we want to make serious repairs to our education system, we need to lay the groundwork for truth and honesty using the stories of those who were actually there and wrote about it.”
Practiced in small circles for decades, elementary education resembles the Great Books programs of many American colleges. Proponents say it challenges students to think for themselves rather than repeat liberal or conservative bias.
Nevada public high school teacher Kevin Barney, who works at the Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas, uses Ashbrook materials in his Advanced Placement American History classes.
Rather than teaching things his students can research on their smartphones, Barney says he uses the source materials to frame discussions “about what they’re going to do with the facts” after they graduate.
“How can they turn facts into argument?” Mr. Barney said, noting that his students are mostly the children of Latino immigrants.
Robert Bortins, CEO of Christian homeschooling program Classical Conversations, says homeschoolers have been using primary sources for years, in part because “timeless materials” are cheaper than textbooks.
“You would need teachers who help students ask and discuss good questions, as well as teach students to read at a level that allows them to understand materials,” said Bortins, whose group provides a mixture of primary and secondary texts. “These are all vital skills of an empowered society.”
According to Bortins, the number of homeschooled American children enrolled in the North Carolina-based program has increased from 108,540 in fall 2020 to 125,371 in fall of last year.
Not everyone is convinced that the new state laws will eliminate political bias from public education.
“First, all writing contains bias,” said Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair of the Washington Homeschool Organization. “Second, not all historical events have primary source material. No one in Pompeii wrote, ‘Yikes! Here comes the lava!’
Connor Boyack, president of the liberal Libertas Institute in Utah, recently published a children’s textbook on American history. He says it is impossible to teach primary sources without explaining their context.
“We cannot convey any element of this context without bias or interpretation,” said Mr. Boyack, author of the “Tuttle Twins” books. “Instead, parents need to recognize that their children are going to learn about history through some sort of interpretative lens, so they need to be careful and concerned about what that lens is.”