WILLIAMS | Virginia has whitewashed its history in the past; keep right-wing think tanks off our agenda | Columnists

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Michael Paul Williams | Richmond Times-Dispatch


As a salesman of history programs, Governor Glenn Youngkin has a credibility problem.

His first act in office last January was an executive order “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts” (read: teaching about systemic racism) in Virginia’s K-12 public education.

His administration established a whistleblower line where people could report teachers who deviated from this new orthodoxy. And Republican lawmakers, bearing his water, expelled three perfectly capable members of the Virginia Board of Education so the Youngkins could fashion a board majority more suited to his ideology.

This story, coupled with the dog whistling that got him elected governor, makes it difficult to buy Youngkin and his appointees as honest brokers of a full and inclusive story. So it looks like its superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow, wants to delay approving Virginia’s recently drafted history and social science standards so that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-wing think tank on education reform, can take a look.

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Never mind that Fordham’s good faith on education and the think tank was called into question. Superintendents, teachers, parents, students and scholars participated in a nearly two-year process on these story recommendations, which received 5,000 comments.

“What is the purpose of adding the Fordham Institute to this time after midnight, when the work of developing our standards is complete?” asked State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, chairman of the public education subcommittee, during a Friday press conference.

She suspects the real purpose of the delay “is to revise standards through the specific prism of the Youngkin administration, its business partners and special interest groups intent on whitewashing our history books and fail to allow for a fuller representation of the rich diversity that is part of our American heritage and history.

Virginia’s problematic past includes whitewashing its history of racism through textbooks peddling Lost Cause narratives that portrayed slaves as content.

Frankly, the examples cited as cause for concern about the draft standards do not seem worthy of a prolonged delay.

Correcting “succession” to read “secession” is a simple copy edit. So does the reinsertion of descriptions of George Washington as “Father of our Country” and James Madison as “Father of the Constitution” – although such worn branding promotes a paper-cut version of our complex and contradictory history.

It begs the question why Balow would be awfully keen to bring Fordham into the mix, given her disregard for results at her previous stop, Wyoming State, where she made a name for herself in as an ardent enemy of critical race theory.

The quality institute’s assessment of the K-12 U.S. Civics and History Standards as of May 1, 2021, “based on content, rigor, clarity and organization,” ranked Wyoming last among states in this assessment; Virginia was in the Top 10. It also raises the question of why Youngkin maintains a K-12 education, which consistently ranks well above Wyoming, one of the whitest and least populated by the country.

The review of history and social science standards has been underway for two years, scrutinized by historians such as former University of Richmond president Ed Ayers, and commented on by thousands of people. Why should the standards of history suddenly be beholden to a right-wing organization best known for its efforts to push charter schools and privatize public education?

Of the. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a high school history and government teacher, told Times-Dispatch reporter Jess Nocera on Wednesday, “A lot of people are worried about a restart in two years. [process on the standards] and that the Youngkin administration will politicize our history curriculum.

Youngkin’s posture in front of a national audience as he dips his toe in presidential waters is also unnecessary. The main unnamed Republican challenger to Donald Trump is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is trying to turn education in Florida into a form of right-wing indoctrination.

On Wednesday, a report on MSNBC’s “Alex Wagner Tonight” documented how a teacher-training program in Florida is trying to immerse teachers in Christian nationalism and revisionist history.

How revisionist? The founders’ desire to separate church and state has been portrayed as a misconception, with this separation portrayed as a fence – not a wall – being dismantled. And Washington and Thomas Jefferson – two of the most notorious slaveholders in American history – are depicted with quotes that would lead you to believe they were abolitionists.

It is less about education than about ideology in the service of a political agenda.

“The battle over the past is always about the present,” Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, told Wagner in an interview. And so it is in Virginia.

For Youngkin, what is past is prologue. We shouldn’t buy the story he’s trying to sell.

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