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Opinion | Michigan social studies standards shouldn’t sugarcoat history

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.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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