The question of what to teach in Nebraska social studies classes is creating a Mason-Dixon Line, of sorts, on two key issues: American exceptionalism and climate change.
Nearly 30 people testified Thursday during statewide teleconferences on Nebraska's proposed social studies standards.
Those who testified voiced both support and opposition to including the two concepts in the standards that would guide teaching in the public schools.
Chad Dumas, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Hastings Public Schools, said his school board favors including climate change but opposes adding American exceptionalism.
Climate change, which is not mentioned in existing Nebraska standards, appears in the draft as a concept that students would evaluate along with loss of biodiversity, deforestation, the ozone layer and air pollution.
“We impact the world around us,” Dumas said. “And the environment impacts us with earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, etc. Students need to understand how both impact each other, including climate change.”
American exceptionalism, Dumas said, has become a partisan political term. The term is not well-defined and doesn't add to the standards, he said.
He said the standards “already clearly lead students to the conclusion that the United States is unique and, as such, exceptional, without using the specific phrase.”
State Board of Education member John Sieler, a former Republican Party official, wants to add American exceptionalism. Advocates say that the bedrock principles underlying the American government give it special status among nations and that school kids should be taught it.
Kathy Wilmot, a former member of the Nebraska Board of Education, testified that the board should include it.
Wilmot said the draft standards include only “fleeting” mention of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the right to bear arms.
Richard D. Brown, who said he's been a social studies educator for 41 years, said the term American exceptionalism didn't have to be spelled out in a curriculum guide.
“It permeates most all of what we teach,” he said.
Cindy Copich, a parent and former teacher from Bellevue, asked whether the standards had been reviewed for cultural sensitivity. She said students should be encouraged to analyze events from a variety of viewpoints.
Iain Anderson, associate professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University, said teachers should not tell students that America is exceptional. Instead, teachers should put the essential documents before them and let them reach their own conclusion.
Good ideas will survive debate, Anderson said.
“The best test of a good idea is a public airing,” he said.
Patricia Jesse, however, testified that the proposed standards appeared to have a liberal slant. Instead of just having a committee of educators write them, state officials should have involved parents and business and religious people, she said.
Harry Heafer, representing the Nebraska Alliance for Conservation and Environmental Education, encouraged the state board to keep the climate change reference and other proposed geography standards that deal with critical thinking, cultures and America's place in the global community.
To eliminate those would lead to “isolationism” and put Nebraska kids at a disadvantage, Heafer said.
Several social studies teachers from Omaha and Lincoln urged the board to retain the geography standards as proposed, including the climate change section and others focusing on human interaction with the environment.
Doug Kagan of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom praised the inclusion of new personal finance standards.
But Kagan criticized the draft as lacking specifics about the uniqueness of the American political system and the success of the free market system, and for not emphasizing the Founding Fathers' principles and national and state sovereignty.
“We suggest stiffening the requirements so that children specifically learn in citizenship instruction that our system of government and economy is superior to others,” he said.
Public comments on the draft standards may be submitted to the Nebraska Department of Education through Nov. 28. The Nebraska Board of Education is expected to consider adoption Dec. 7.
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