South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem is on the verge of instituting social studies standards for public schools that promotes Christian nationalism without ever saying it outright. The standards treat Jesus as a real-life historical figure, say the Founding Fathers believed in “an eternal God” who created a standard of justice in nature, and downplay the nation’s embrace of slavery and systemic racism.
Noem announced the new standards on Monday, claiming they had no “political agendas” and focused more on Native American history, unlike a controversial draft of the standards released last year. But the political agenda is loud and clear. You don’t even have to read between the lines.
Just consider who was assigned to put the 128-page draft together. Ideally, the 15-member group would include 15 educators and/or history experts (in various specialties) because why the hell would you need anyone else? But that’s not what happened.
The 15-member standards workgroup, selected partially by the governor, included Noem’s chief of staff, two Republican lawmakers and the director of the South Dakota Catholic Conference, but just three educators certified by the Department of Education. The group’s work was facilitated by William Morrisey, a former professor at Hillsdale College — a conservative institution in Michigan that has tried to remake education across the country.
Neither of the two Republican lawmakers served on the education committees.
Noem’s chief of staff and the Catholic leader have no business being in this workgroup at all.
The Dakota Free Press, a liberal news outlet, summarized some of the other members this way:
… Noem has also rigged the panel with her former Education Secretary, now nicely sinecured conservative state historian Dr. Ben Jones. Dakota Valley teacher Mary Shuey has served as a Republican party official in Union County under SDGOP chair Dan Lederman. Winnebago school teacher Janet Finzen is a Republican neighbor of Lederman in Dakota Dunes. The panel includes two Aberdeen conservatives: Dylan Kessler is a former Thune staffer with no professional background in education, while Dr. Jon Schaaf professes political science at Northern and will ensure no liberal philosophy sneaks into the standards.
But maybe the most damning thing about the workgroup is how it was “facilitated” by William Morrisey, the former Hillsdale College professor. Hillsdale College has become a clearhouse for conservative propaganda and David Barton-esque misinformation. It’s the same school responsible for the recent right-wing push in Florida’s civics classes.
Those are the people who put these standards together.
So what’s actually in the document? The Associated Press’ Stephen Groves summarized the Christian nationalist portion like this:
… They are also peppered with Christian history and explore the religion’s influence on the nation’s leading figures and on Western civilization.
For example, seventh grade students are expected to explain how the nation’s founders advanced equal rights for every person and advanced the idea that each person “is endowed with these rights by the God that created them, and that the existence of human slavery was understood by most, but not all, of the founders to be a contradiction of the principle of human equality.”
The suggestion that slavery was perpetuated by a few bad eggs has no basis in reality. Neither does the idea that they supported equal rights given who they believed should be able to vote. And to emphasize their references to God, long before the world knew anything about evolution or DNA, gives far too much credit to their faith.
But this homage to a falsely Christianized form of history was broadcast over a year ago, when Noem co-wrote an article condemning “critical race theory” (which wasn’t even being taught in SD schools) and the apparent rejection of the idea that “we are all created equal by God.”
Noem has a history of using her position to promote her faith. In 2019, Noem signed a bill that required all public schools to display “In God We Trust” in a prominent place. She’s also said all politicians’ actions must “line up with the word of God“… by which, it’s safe to assume, she means her personal God and none of the other ones.
The point is: Gov. Kristi Noem has always wanted to push conservative propaganda to students, and through these standards, she got her way. If the new standards are adopted, the students are the ones who will ultimately suffer. After all, if you’re a college admissions officer who’s choosing potential students, you would have to assume the ones from South Dakota are less prepared for more rigorous history courses given the misinformation they were fed over the past several years.
There is a chance for citizens to push back against this indoctrination of children, at least symbolically (though organized backlash could get widespread attention). The state Board of Education Standards mandates four public hearings about this document across the state over the next six months. They’re also taking written comments.