- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A growing number of state legislatures have mandated primary sources in American history classes to purge racially divisive bias from K-12 public education.

Ten states have enacted laws requiring primary sources, according to the Ashbrook Center, an independent program at Ashland University in Ohio that supplies core documents and trains teachers in their use. The new requirements have created a spike in the number of teachers contacting the center, which launched in 1983.

“Studying the words of those who actually lived and breathed American history fosters true understanding, appreciation for and application of our past to the challenges we face today, free of bias and whitewashing,” Jeff Sikkenga, the center’s director, said in an email.

The political science professor at Ashland, a private Christian university, said 30,000 teachers, mostly at public schools, will use the center’s materials this year.

Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado are mandating primary sources for the first time.

Kentucky’s new law requires public schools to use copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents from a list supplied by Ashbrook.

In Arizona, House Bill 2008 prescribes lessons on the “original intent of the U.S. founding documents” and on “defending the blessings of liberty inherited from the prior generations and secured by the U.S. Constitution.”

Colorado’s law instructs teachers to cover the nation’s founding documents and basic civics knowledge.

“It is dependent on the teacher and the philosophy of the school or district on how the documents are interpreted,” said Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver.

The other seven states that recently enacted laws to require primary sources are Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.

Florida’s law will go into effect at the start of the next school year.

South Carolina’s Senate Bill 38 specifies that schools must teach “the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Declaration of Independence to each student.”

The states are focusing on primary sources as studies report declining civics knowledge. Last week, an annual poll from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 56% of adults could not name the three branches of the federal government — executive, legislative and judicial — and less than one-quarter knew any of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Kimberly Fletcher, president of the conservative group Moms for America, said using primary sources addresses the concern of many parents that textbooks indoctrinate students with a liberal bias while ignoring basic knowledge.

“Source documents are the most accurate account of history,” Ms. Fletcher said in an email. “If we are going to make any serious repairs to our education system, we need to lay a foundation of truth and honesty using the accounts of those who were actually there and wrote about it.”

Practiced in small circles for decades, primary source education resembles the Great Books programs at many U.S. colleges. Advocates say it challenges students to think for themselves rather than parrot a liberal or conservative bias.

Kevin Barney, a public high school teacher at Veterans Tribute Career & Technical Academy in Las Vegas, uses Ashbrook materials in his Advanced Placement U.S. history classes.

Rather than teach what his students can look up on their smartphones, Mr. Barney said, he uses the source documents to frame discussions “on what they’re going to do with the facts” after graduation.

“How can they turn the facts into an argument?” said Mr. Barney, whose students are predominantly the children of Hispanic immigrants.

Robert Bortins, CEO of the Christian home education program Classical Conversations, said home-schoolers have used primary sources for years partly because “timeless materials” cost less than textbooks.

“You would need to have teachers that help students ask and discuss good questions, as well as teaching students to read at a level that they can understand the documents,” said Mr. Bortins, whose group provides a mix of primary and secondary education texts. “These are all vital skills of a self-governing society.”

Mr. Bortins said the number of home-schooled American children enrolled in the North Carolina-based program jumped from 108,540 in the fall of 2020 to 125,371 last fall.

Not everyone is sold on the idea that the state laws will remove 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 free market Libertas Institute in Utah, recently published a children’s textbook on American history. He said it’s impossible to teach primary sources without explaining their contexts.

“We can’t convey any of that context without bias or interpretation,” said Mr. Boyack, author of the “Tuttle Twins” books. “Instead, parents have to recognize that their children are going to learn history through an interpretive lens of some sort, so they have to be cautious and concerned about what that lens is.”

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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