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The fight for America’s past

By Tom Cole
U.S. Representative
Along with mathematics and science, study of civics and American history is key to a well-rounded education. Indeed, when Americans have a deeper understanding of our nation’s history and founding principles, they become more engaged citizens who participate in our government the way our Founding Fathers intended. It also preserves our republic and ensures a prosperous future for generations to come.
Sadly, the National Assessment of Education Progress has reported a nearly 27-year proficiency decline in these subjects. Moreover, only nine states require a full year of civics education be included in high school curricula, and 10 states do not require any sort of civics education at all. The weakened citizen knowledge of our nation’s history and understanding of our unique system of governance should alarm every American.
For these reasons, I joined in sponsoring the Civics Secures Democracy Act, aimed at strengthening and expanding access to civics and history education across the United States. Unfortunately, this legislation has been conflated with support of a national curriculum threaded with liberal ideologies, including critical race theory.
To be clear, as written, this bill does not impose or incentivize the adoption of any national curriculum or promote teaching of critical race theory. In fact, the legislation explicitly prohibits such action. Indeed, mandating use of a national curriculum is something I do not and cannot support. Following an exchange with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in my appropriations subcommittee, I am greatly concerned that by the Biden Administration’s new guidance, published in the Federal Register, for grant applicants and recipients of the existing American History and Civics Education programs.
During our discussion, Secretary Cardona first stated that curriculum decisions are made at the state level with local control. However, he then contradicted that statement when he admitted that the U.S. Department of Education could condition grants on support of curricular content the Administration prioritizes.
I remain concerned about the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed priorities for grant recipients of the American History and Civics Education programs. While the guidance does not force a curriculum, it indicates what version of history and civics education the Administration believes should be taught and how that could impact similar civics grant programs in the future.
In response, I sent a letter last week to Secretary Cardona, urging the Biden Administration to withdraw its proposed priorities. While I certainly support strengthening civics and American history knowledge in school systems across the country, I cannot support backdoor efforts to introduce critical race theory and elevate the widely disputed ideas put forward by the 1619 Project.
A long-form journalism initiative spearheaded by writers of the left-leaning New York Times, the 1619 Project was not developed by trained historians and has been the subject of criticism from leading members of historical academia concerning its credibility – so much so that it has required revision. The project’s main assertion is that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
In reducing the American Revolution to little more than a slaveholders’ rebellion, this project swats aside the weight of historical evidence and primary sources that run counter to this claim. That the Department of Education would elevate dubious historical scholarship in its proposed priorities speaks volumes about its intended direction for civics education and the importance of political narrative over historical fact.
As a former history professor and a tribal member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, I appreciate the desire to offer diverse perspectives in education and recognize the discrimination faced by minority groups throughout history, including members of my own family.
But I also know there is more to American history than just our country’s imperfections. Indeed, America has afforded my family, and many others, opportunities that exist nowhere else in the world. Even in the face of adversity and in spite of flaws, we can and should celebrate the nation, the values and the institutions that made the journey possible.

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