Michigan Conservatives Don’t Want to Teach Students That America Is a Democracy

A child at a recent Trump rally in Grand Rapids. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Michigan State Board of Education will vote on a plan to reform the state’s standards for social studies, the rubric that determines how teachers cover history, civics, economics, and geography in their classrooms. The new standards, first developed by former Republican State Senator Patrick Colbeck and a group of like-minded conservatives, propose a few right-turns in the lesson plans of Michigan teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade.

According to the local nonprofit Bridge magazine, Colbeck and company’s plan would remove from the standards all LGBT references in the section dealing with civil rights, all references to Roe v. Wade, and would severely limit teachers’ ability to discuss climate change. Colbeck told Bridge that he personally added a zero-sum proposal about “how the expansion of rights for some groups [including immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ Americans] can be viewed as an infringement of rights and freedoms of others.”

This is more or less standard fare for conservative education advocates: altering lesson plans or textbooks to make them more friendly to small-government ideas, or less critical of the country’s most egregious human rights violations. In Texas in 2010, the state board of education approved a new set of textbooks that corrected a perceived left-leaning bias within the school system. “Academia is skewed too far to the left,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leading conservative advocate on Texas’ education board. Among other attempts to provide what McLeroy called “balance” was a rewrite of history book chapters on slavery, which glossed over the atrocities of centuries of bondage and included feel-good passages like “Some slaves reported that their masters treated ​them kindly,” and “many enslaved Africans found comfort in ​their community and culture. They made time ​for social activity, even after exhausting workdays, in order to relieve the hardship of their ​lives.” In Oklahoma in 2015, state Republicans drew up a bill that would ban public schools from using state money to teach the AP U.S. history course, because it emphasizes “what is bad about America” and doesn’t teach “American exceptionalism,” according to State Representative Dan Fisher.

The proposed curriculum update in Michigan also falls in line with another type of push by conservative education advocates: cutting references to America’s status as a democracy. The first draft of the proposed changes in Michigan attempted to nix the word “democratic” from the phrase “core democratic values,” a slogan that defined virtues like equality, liberty, and diversity. Similar efforts were enacted in Texas and Georgia in 2010 and 2016, when state education boards removed “democracy” as a description of American government, or promoted the unwieldy phrase “representative democracy/republic” instead.

In March, the conservative advocates defended their draft in front of a “bias review” board in Lansing, who also considered community suggestions, including references to Japanese-American internment during WWII, redlining, the Flint water crisis, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter. Internment and Flint made it into the standards; #MeToo, redlining, and Black Lives Matter did not.

In a compromise, the proposed standards now use the term “American government” as the most-frequent phrase for the nation’s electoral system, but will also include the phrase “constitutional government,” and occasional uses of “democracy.” Patrick Colbeck, the leading conservative voice in the argument, said that the term “democracy” was not “politically neutral and accurate.” On Tuesday, the Board of Education — which has a 6-2 democratic majority — will vote on the renegotiated, democracy-sometimes standards.

These efforts by Colbeck and other local conservatives are a little less direct than recent anti-democratic positions taken up by state Republicans — a proposed “poll tax” in Florida, the wholesale gerrymandering of Wisconsin — but could have an equally long tail of consequence, considering that they target young students figuring out their own political stances and the basic functions of “constitutional government.” At least one student, concerned about the standards’ language on gender and race, isn’t thrilled about grown advocates arguing on his behalf. Alex Hosey, a high school sophomore in East Lansing, wrote to the State Board of Education: “Hiding our nation’s sins isn’t the right way to do it. Teach us about everything — the good and the bad, so we can learn to think for ourselves.”

Michigan Conservatives Don’t Want Kids to Learn ‘Democracy’