Opinion | Michigan social studies standards shouldn’t sugarcoat history

Brian Gutman is director of external relations at The Education Trust-Midwest. Lauren Hubbard is a 2018 Policy Fellow at The Education Trust-Midwest.

Our nation’s history is revolutionary. It is rich in experiments that have reshaped global power, discoveries that have radically changed the way that we live, and raised up fundamental human rights well beyond our borders.

But our history is also marked with a legacy of slavery, oppression of our own and fear-based decisions that deny basic rights to large swaths of Americans.

This shared history – the good and the bad – have shaped our national identity. America’s full history is what Michigan students deserve to learn. It is what we, as citizens, need our next generation of leaders to understand.

Related: Got a beef with Michigan’s social studies standards? Help rewrite them

For more than a year, the Michigan Department of Education has worked to revise Michigan’s social studies standards. Once finalized, these standards will serve as year-end expectations for what students across Michigan are expected to learn. We are proud to work for The Education Trust-Midwest, an organization that has taken a stand for Michigan students, by calling out changes that minimize and hide the full struggle for equality in our nation.

Insisting on high expectations for all Michigan students, and supporting students and teachers to meet these standards, is how we ensure that every Michigan child is prepared to succeed as an informed, engaged citizen. This is why some of the most recent changes to Michigan’s social studies standards are so concerning.

Students are best served through a full education on the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties. Key moments in this struggle – the March on Washington, freedom rides and the Montgomery bus boycott – help tell the story of the long fight for civil rights. The moments demonstrate that discrimination and segregation were not merely accidental; they were written into our laws. And the resistance by some Americans to the fight for racial equality is equally important. Yet as it stands, this important history may be glossed over.

America’s struggles and resistance to issues of equality is not ancient or over. Any belief that civil rights are universal only need to look at the experience of Native Americans, Latinos, recent immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities and LGBTQ. Each of these groups have all faced discrimination and inequality in the recent past. And all of these groups have achieved significant accomplishments over the last 50 years. There is little doubt that in the next generation, the fight for civil rights and equality will continue.

This is why focusing instead on how the expansion of rights for some can be considered an infringement on the rights of others is so concerning. Instead of focusing on the struggles of marginalized groups, proposed changes focus on those resisting the expansion of civil rights and liberties to all.

To be clear, both the struggle for civil rights and resistance to equality are part of our nation’s story. And both have a place in Michigan classrooms and textbooks. Achieving this full education requires us to get specific.

The fight for civil rights of African Americans is incomplete without talking about the roles of the NAACP and W.E.B. DuBois. The story of how women won the right to vote must include the impact of suffragettes like Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt. And the importance of a free press for the expansion of rights hinges on teaching the history-making writings of Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell.

History has a troubling tendency to repeat itself. When we fail to teach the struggles and lessons of the past, we are bound to repeat the errors of our ways. Only by being forthcoming about both points of pride and stains on our national consciousness, can we build toward a more free, fair and equitable future.

American history deserves transparency. This must include our greatest achievements, darkest hours, and the many struggles, setbacks and victories in-between.

Michigan’s future is not only about the result of one election, one policy or one industry. The future of Michigan is being developed in our classrooms every day. Building a better future rests on how well we serve our students.

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Doug Baier
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 9:07am

Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" and James Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" should be required reading for both those involved in this selection process and, ultimately, the students.

Thanks for your efforts.

Darryle J. Buchanan
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 9:33am

Why would there be any suggestion of not teaching the full history of this country? If the truth makes people uncomfortable then they need to ask why. How does making our children ignorant of the truth serve any greater purpose?

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 9:47am

It's easier to destroy the unions if people don't know about the Labor Wars.

It's easier to repeal anti-pollution laws if people don't know about the Donora Smog Disaster or the Silent Spring.

It's easier to remove food and worker safety regulations if people haven't read the Jungle.

Simply put, it's easier to fleece or control the ignorant. You can't understand the present or predict the future if you don't know nothing of the past.

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 11:48am

Exactly! Well said!

Darryle J. Buchanan
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 1:38pm

Well put. I try to believe in our better angels, but some don’t have one...

Sun, 10/07/2018 - 9:30pm

I agree...Will your suggestions in taken seriously? Social Studies can't just be cold facts, Instead a "story" that factually explains what, where, when, who, decisions made and impact. Include the good, bad and ugly

Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 10:10am

So, do these new standards includes things like Klanbake (there IS a reason why certain politicians just love wearing all white) or the party breakdown of the '64 CRA vote (see previous example)?

I'd also love to know why Mr. Gutman and Ms. Hubbard feel that the actions and contributions of people like Dr. Joseph Warren, George Westinghouse or Ltc Edward O'Hare (just to name a few) are any less important to American History than their own examples?

You only have a finite amount of time to teach these students our American History.

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 3:12pm

Interesting that this liberal publication supports NOT doing what a lot of democrats insist on doing- rewriting history. I agree with this article but the same must be done with ALL history. Not cherry picked history. You could start by teaching why it's counter-productive to remove statues.

Larry Levy
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 6:31pm

Which statues are "counter-productive to remove"?

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 7:42pm

Why is removing the statues counter productive? You've made a bold statement. Please, explain your position. Why do we hold on to these symbols of White Supremacy, of the failure of Reconstruction, of the continued second class status of Blacks in America? They were erected to intimidate, to show that the 14th Amendment was just words on paper. Why should we keep them monuments to our hate?

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 10:27pm

This would be a really fresh idea in 1962. The problem is that since 1962 the counterculture has controlled our schools and curriculum. Kids hear that America is a racist sexist country before they ever learn how it make the world. My son's history book tells him that Spain was a place where Christians, Muslims and Jews all lived together peacefully until the Catholics decided to kick out the Muslims. No mention of how a Catholic population is Spain was made Muslim. Everyone is for telling the whole story, but the purpose of many people writing the history books today is to delegitimize and destroy the West.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 10/07/2018 - 11:58am

Funny to think about: students in Michigan learning about civil rights in largely segregated schools and classrooms with crumbling walls and heating systems that don't work.