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Virginia Went to War Over History. And Students Actually Came Out on Top.



The new document landed with a mighty crash. While the prefatory material of the Northam standards had spoken of instilling in students “a thoughtful pride in the history of America” based on the nation’s continual effort to live up to its own professed values, the new version celebrated “the world impact of America’s quest for a ‘more perfect union’ and the optimism, ideals and imagery captured by Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ speech.”

Included in the “foundational principles” was the claim, apparently regarded as self-evident, that “Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems is incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms.” And critical race theory reared its head, if indirectly: “Teachers should engage students in age-appropriate ways that do not ascribe guilt to any population in the classroom.”

It was as if the Youngkin administration wanted to pick a fight with the kind of people who could refer to George Washington without his mythic title. If so, they got their wish.

Parents, students and activists lined up at the mandatory public commentary session to condemn the new standards. The head of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond claimed that the draft would “undermine the teaching of the Holocaust.” The representative of an Asian group accused the authors of erasing from history people like her late Filipino grandfather. A representative of the Henrico County NAACP said the document would legitimize white supremacy. Sikhs complained that they had been denied a place in Virginia’s history.

Others assailed the absence of explicit skills instruction. A social studies teacher said that students can “find facts in five seconds on their cellphone.” Why, she asked, were children being prepared “to be Jeopardy contestants”?

If the objections often felt like a familiar reprise of identity politics, there was no mistaking the intensity of feeling; though Youngkin had campaigned on returning control over the schools to parents, virtually every parent who spoke was infuriated by the new standards.

The Northam appointees to the board were no less outraged.

Anne Holton, Virginia’s former secretary of education, told Balow and Carmichael, who Balow said was chiefly responsible for the document, that while she had defended the administration from charges of whitewashing the nation’s past, “I no longer have that confidence.” Gecker, a stickler for process, accused Balow of misleading the board, and called the new standards “a breach of faith with the public.” Even Rotherham said that he was baffled to find that the draft did not describe slavery as the cause of the Civil War, though unlike Holton he attributed the failure to “sloppy drafting.”

The draft was, in fact, riddled with errors, including describing antisemitism as one of the consequences of the Holocaust instead of the other way around, and listing the Treaty of Versailles under the section on World War II rather than World War I. Balow even apologized for a characterization of Native Americans as America’s “first immigrants.”

The dam seems to have broken when Alan Seibert, a Youngkin appointee, finally said, “I can’t do this.” The board voted unanimously not to grant first review.

The episode was an embarrassment to the governor, who was forced to acknowledge “omissions and mistakes” and conceded, “I don’t think we’re where we need to be.” Youngkin, who is still talked up as a potential 2024 presidential contender, was not made available for an interview for this piece

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