Conservative college curriculum takes hold in South Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, SD — A few days before middle school professor Shaun Nielsen was to join a task force to develop South Dakota’s social studies standards, he received a large package in the mail.

Sent from Hillsdale, Michigan, home to a conservative private college with outsized influence among top Republicans, it contained materials that would ultimately form what public school students in the state might be expected to learn about the American history and civics.

“Whoa – those are already written,” Nielsen remembers thinking as he opened the document this spring.

Hillsdale College, which in recent years has sought to “revive the American tradition of K-12 education” by fostering a national network of schools, gained new prominence when then-president Donald Trump, called on the school to help him develop a “patriotic education project”. . Now, in a sign of Hillsdale’s growing influence in public education, South Dakota has proposed statewide standards that contain distinct echoes of Hillsdale material.

While Republican governors such as Bill Lee of Tennessee and Ron DeSantis of Florida embraced Hillsdale education for K-12 students, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem may have been the more enthusiastic. Larry Arrn, the school’s president, even said in a speech last year that Noem had “offered to build us an entire campus in South Dakota.”

It doesn’t seem to be in progress. But it was Noem, widely seen as a 2024 White House hopeful, who turned to former Hillsdale politics professor William Morrisey to develop the state’s social studies standards. The state paid him $200,000 and he operated the Hillsdale equipment, according to members of the standards commission.

The college played a vital role in Trump’s “1776 Report,” a conservative response to work like the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which re-examined the founding of the United States with the institution of slavery In the center. Hillsdale went on to produce “The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum,” which features nearly 2,400 pages of American history lesson plans.

South Dakota’s proposed standards released in mid-August align with the 1776 Curriculum. Both emphasize the ideals of the country’s founders as an argument for American exceptionalism – a popular idea in conservative circles that the United States is uniquely worthy of universal praise.

The documents both define patriotism in the same way, as the preservation of the “good” of the country while correcting its faults. They teach that progressivism conflicts with the founding ideals of the nation, and claim that most of the founders—including slaveholders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—wanted an end to slavery.

Morrisey declined an interview, and Hillsdale did not grant a request to interview a member of its K-12 education office.

Noem’s administration referred the questions to Ben Jones, who oversees the South Dakota Historical Society and worked on the commission to develop the standards. Jones defended Hillsdale scholarship as respected in higher education and said Morrisey brought to the commission a “generic” version of United States history that could be found in most textbooks.

“Honestly, it’s a logical fallacy to say something is bad because it’s associated with this band that I disagree with on that other thing,” he said of the reviews. of Hillsdale.

Jones pointed out that Morrisey’s project included descriptions of how early Africans were enslaved and brought to the colonies and how the United States broke treaties with Native American tribes.

“The good, the bad, the ugly were all there,” he said.

Jones added that the group discussed and debated the standards over several meetings and at the end, “I feel like we all made it our own.”

When Noem’s administration formed the 15-person commission, it chose three people, including Nielsen, who are currently certified to teach in South Dakota public schools. The group decided which grade levels should learn the standards and added South Dakota and Native American components to the proposal, Nielsen said.

When the proposal was made public last month, Nielsen said he felt conflicted. He calls himself a conservative but is careful to separate his political views from his teaching in the classroom. He said he agrees with Noem’s desire to make South Dakota a national leader in social studies education and even much of the content he covers.

Ultimately, he said, he decided to speak out against the standards because they didn’t come from South Dakota educators.

“The ‘1776 program’ – it’s pretty close to that,” he said.

“When you’re handed a set of standards to approve, it’s not a collaborative process at all,” he added. The standards, he worries, were not written with the practical needs of a classroom in mind.

Prominent voices among South Dakota educators agree. The standards — which will go through public hearings this fall before the governor-appointed Education Standards Council decides whether to adopt them — have been met with cold reception from organizations representing teachers, school boards and school administrators. .

“It’s from a private college out of state,” said Tim Graf, the superintendent of the Harrisburg school district outside of Sioux Falls. “I just don’t want it to be political in any way.”

Jennifer Lowery, superintendent of the Tea Area School District, worried that teachers in lower grades were being forced to spend more time on social studies at the expense of foundational skills such as basic math and reading.

“We don’t stamp our feet because our feelings have been hurt or our profession has been disrespected,” she said. “You hear the outcry because it’s not what’s best for our kids.”

Several educators said the standards rely too much on memorization and too little on inquiry-based learning that teaches students to question and analyze. Jones, the state historian, countered that memorization at younger grade levels will pave the way for later analysis.

Stephen Jackson, a history professor at the University of Sioux Falls, said it goes against the criteria of the American Historical Society’s state standards, which says the survey engages students and helps them connect historical events to modern contexts.

Jackson was part of a group that created social studies standards last year, only to have its work dropped by the governor. As conservatives began to push back against historical analyzes that argued that racism and American history were inextricably linked, Noem called for teaching how “the United States is the most special nation in the history of the world. “.

Noem said the new standards are the best in the country, calling them a “true, honest, and balanced approach to American history that is uninfluenced by political agendas.” Hillsdale College used similar language when launching its program.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an educational historian at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that high school students could benefit from analyzing the “1619 Project” alongside the Trump administration’s “1776 Report” and learning to assess and to discuss it. That’s unlikely in South Dakota, since Noem has decided to block teachings like the “1619 Project” in public schools.

“People like Kristi Noem are right when they say America’s fundamental narrative is being challenged like never before,” Zimmerman said. “I just think it’s a good challenge.”