Students listen to teacher Natalie Lyon in her third grade classroom at John Colter Elementary School in Jackson in 2018. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The recent suggestion by Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) that Wyoming’s social science curriculum needs reform to ward off the dangerous notion of “identity politics” and stem an unhealthy slide toward a “liberal education” was a rude reality check for me. Last summer, I spent hours, really days, exploring social science curricula in several Wyoming school districts to gauge whether our schools are preparing students to be the sort of global citizens they will increasingly need to be. I never entertained the possibility of a push to “reform” our education system in a decidedly backward direction. 

I believe that students of predominantly white rural backgrounds should be educated to compete in our rapidly changing world. (Let’s not kid ourselves, many if not most of our kids will leave Wyoming.) To be effective citizens, our students need social-justice education just as much as students in ethnically diverse institutions. 

Okay, I know, “social justice education” conjures fears of indoctrination or brainwashing — teaching our kids that one particular narrow and intolerant view is the only possible way of seeing the world.  

A review of academic writings on social-justice education, however, reveals something entirely different — a reliance on experimentation, critical thinking and open-mindedness to teach students how to engage with real-world social issues. The approach is borrowed straight from the playbook of the influential philosopher and early 20th century educator John Dewey. The idea is to help students to “share and learn from each others’ experiences, reflect on their own and others’ experiences to make sense of larger structural systems of advantage and disadvantage, and create new meanings for themselves,” according to the 2016 edition of “Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.” 

Hardly the top-down, force-fed, anti-American propaganda we’ve been told to fear. Our students can be coached to consider controversial topics in the classroom. When we allow them to debate, do research and write essays they can reach their own conclusions as to whether white privilege or systemic racism exist. They can even probe for themselves whether Donald Trump will save the world from a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, or whether President Joe Biden is senile and is being prompted through an earpiece by former President Obama.  

As a former-full-time and current-part-time Pinedale resident, I was particularly interested in the social-science offerings of Sublette County School District No. 1. To give a few examples of my findings, the district’s American history curriculum covers slavery and its demise, but fails to underscore that it was the cruel and inhuman exploitation of the enslaved in cotton production that hastened the growth of factories and catapulted a poor nation into a global financial colossus. I’m sure we’d all prefer a nobler history of American capitalism, but our curriculum should portray reality, even when that reality is bleak. 

Sublette County kids do study the role of the federal government in advancing the civil rights of African Americans in the 1960s. But, at least according to the curriculum, they won’t grasp how federal policies in the aftermath of World War II restricted opportunities for Blacks. While whites embarked on an unprecedented path to wealth accumulation, laws and legally enshrined covenants, particularly in the South, prevented Blacks from purchasing homes in areas where the banks were lending. And while  the GI Bill paved the way for white vets to secure a college education, historically Black colleges, particularly in the South, were swamped with applications and there were simply not the same higher education for returning Black vets. 

I addressed Pinedale’s school board last September with some suggestions of how to amplify their curriculum to better coach students in negotiating our changing world. I got a polite acknowledgement from the superintendent, but no expression of interest from anyone in the school district.  

Haroldson is not alone in his history-sanitization campaign. There are bills pending in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and West Virginia to ban the promotion of “divisive concepts” in the classroom. Arkansas lawmakers sought to forbid classes, events or activities that encourage “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” particular groups of people. And the U.S. is not the only country where governmental efforts to reinterpret history are afoot. Consider the revisionist effort in Poland to punish historians and bury facts that get in the way of the government’s determination to exonerate the role of Poland and ethnic Poles during the Nazi occupation. 

Haroldson is right about one thing: There are “two sides to the discussion of slavery.” The first is that the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, marked the end of white supremacy and oppression of African Americans, who from that moment on proceeded unfettered in their pursuit of full citizenship and economic progress. The second view is that slavery was abolished and our institutions, laws and policies evolved to disenfranchise and marginalize African Americans so that well into the 21st Century their wealth accumulation and economic opportunities fall dismally short compared to those of whites.

Katharine Collins

Retired Casper Star-Tribune reporter Katharine Collins has written for High Country News and has produced several documentaries for Wyoming Public Television.

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  1. Thirty years ago, a co-worker came to the office one morning and told me “Last night,my four year old came to me and asked: ‘Daddy why are some of us brown and some of us are beige?’ “. A four-year old had the perfect understanding of “us” that escapes the alleged adult white supremacists who are so outspoken these days.

  2. Excellent commentary and spot on. In some ways I understand the so called white grievance culture as it is becoming harder for white children to have the same lifestyle/job opportunities as their parents, while minority preferences are supposedly being used to right historical wrongs. I am also aware of the way minority communities are presented on reality based shows from Cops to the First 48, which maybe the only type of exposure most rural white Americans get to brown communities; all without adequate context provided by a less than exposed educational work force in the first place.

    Our elected white leaders are using this white angst to further vilify and divide instead of educate themselves and the electorate on the true reasons for: one aiding minorities and two, the economic reasons for the decline of a prosperous middle class in America and across the world..

    While I would like to think we will solve these issues, I have not much hope for Wyoming as based on my anecdotal review, the white grievance members of the USA are moving to places like Pinedale and are bringing their ignorance as well as time to meddle in politics/school boards with them.. And at the same time their children are getting out…..unless they happen to be lucky enough to be a sixth generation cattle/energy baron.

  3. Certainly Ms. Collins is spot-on here. But where we need to direct the conversation is towards the state’s Social Studies Standards, specifically the standards for Civics and U.S. History. Take some time to look at what NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) suggests for Civics and U.S. History (before folks start casing stones about left-wing organizations, know that the State of Wyoming uses NAEP to measure elementary and middle school reading and math progress) standards. Then cross-reference to what Wyoming’s standards look like. Wyoming’s standards are vague and indeterminant (and intentionally so), thus the focus and direction of what we want our students to achieve in Civics and U.S. History are fuzzy. Standards drive instruction and instruction drives curriculum. Until pressure is placed on the State Board of Education and the Wyoming Department of Education to effectively “fix” the U.S. History and Civics Standards and have them as focused as the current Computer Science, Math, and Science Standards, our Social Studies instruction will continue to be dependent upon individual schools in individual districts.

  4. It is so wonderful to see the comments section devolve into name calling. It seems those on the left cannot help themselves but to call conservatives a right-wing nut job, or revel in deaths of conservative figures.

    These behaviors are a clear illustration of a lack of critical thinking. Or fair and balanced discussion. It demonstrates a lack of honor and character.

    Ms. Collins reveals her hand when she intimates that growing up in a white rural community is bad. That in itself is racist thinking. It is en vogue these days to trash white people and incriminate them by association and skin color. The funny thing is when I was younger we had friends of color and as I became a young adult we talked about critical issues over a beer. We did not spew hate. We talked to each other and listened to each other. In the past ten to fifteen years I have had far too many experiences of white leftists who know nothing about me or my heart tell me what a stupid, racist, but-job I am. It is easier to call names and cast stones then have a conversation and be open to the possibility that your closely held beliefs might be wrong.

    All of those leftists foaming at the mouth and writing their scathing responses might want to know that I come from a multicultural-multiethnic-multiracial family. My children struggle with race. They struggle with being surrounded by white skin when their skin does not match. Our struggle is real. The thing is they are learning. Their experience helps them learn about inner strength and loving themselves. My children will learn real diversity and appreciation for differences first hand.

    What Ms. Collins suggests is not authentic and fraught with opportunities for indoctrination. Experience is often the greatest teacher. It would be wonderful for children from mono cultural areas, whether it be rural Wyoming, inner city Baltimore, a barrio in Dallas, or a reservation, to have experiences visiting other countries or other regions of the country and interacting with children from other cultures. That kind of opportunity would benefit all children of all races from all regions of the country and the world. The greatest teacher is experience. Those options are not realistic for all students. Unfortunately the funds to take students on actual trips to multiple countries or regions to interact with students of other races just are not there. That kind of experience has to reside with the family.

    Ms. Collins exemplifies a typical leftist person who speaks as if she has all the correct answers and others are backwards thinking. She is the smartest person in the room and has the right to tell other parents what their children have to learn. Our children need to read, be able to use mathematics, understand science, especially the scientific method and understanding of peer review, and geography, history and understanding of other cultures. SJW education belongs in the realm of religious education, in the home.

    1. Admonishing other posters for “name-calling” while you do the same is comical in itself.

      It’s obvious you believe the teachers in our public education system can’t wait to “indoctrinate” the kids in their classes. You, as the other person I replied to, are over exaggerating and straight up wrong. In fact, I’ve had more teachers try to force their religious beliefs and right wing intolerance on my kids than the ” evil leftists” that you are so afraid of.

      Next time you’d like to perch atop your soapbox, try to do so without being guilty of what you are accusing others of doing. You might be taken more seriously and a constructive dialog may appear.

      Cheers

  5. “… fails to underscore that it was the cruel and inhuman exploitation of the enslaved in cotton production that hastened the growth of factories and catapulted a poor nation into a global financial colossus”

    Couple of questions:

    1. If slavery was such an economic boon, why was the slave-holding south so much more impoverished than the free northern states? Suggesting that slave-picked cotton somehow drove the economic divide between the north and south seems like a confused confederate argument for the south being economically exploited by the north.

    2. 40% of the transatlantic slave went to Brazil which amounts to ~10x as many African slaves imported into Brazil than the United States. Why has Brazil always been so much more impoverished than the United States?

    3. Ignoring the viking raids that are irrelevant to this discussion, the nation of Norway has never colonized or enslaved perpetual non-white victims, yet despite this, every measure of GDP per capita places Norway above the United States. How is this even possible if Norway didn’t have the allegedly wildly productive institution of 18th and 19th century chattel slavery that supposedly made the US into the global hegemon that it is?

    It seems to me that to whatever extent there is an obvious correlation between slavery and the wealth of a nation, it is negative. Of course your brand of marxoid critical race theory fails to make any accurate predictions and is wholly inconsistent with the obvious reality of the world we live in.

  6. My grandson, now 27, grew up in a multi-cultural society on the west coast. He is one of the most open-minded people I know. His aunt (and his mom) grew up in Wyoming. I will never forget when his aunt, age 3, chose a black Barbie doll while we visited relatives on the west coast. As we stood in line to pay for it, she turned around and said “Look, Mommy, that lady is the same color as my doll!”

    Environment has a lot to do with our view of the world. Our schools have a responsibility to prepare our young people for what they will encounter when they range beyond our mostly white borders. Thank you for a most responsible article!

  7. Katharine,
    First, I applaud you, a person with southern roots, Wyoming awareness and a global knowledge, for attempting to encourage schools to adopt a path of education that focuses on learning about our past, reading and critical thinking. I guess I’m not surprised that you received a simple “polite” acknowledgment in a state that seems to has dismissed all of the above as some kind of liberal plot to indoctrinate young minds. The honest folks who try to do what you say in our schools and universities are now viewed with suspicion, or as I heard that now-dead far-right radio host say not long ago, like those overpaid leftist professors who “pound mush” into the heads of youngsters. Or perhaps it’s all part of a deep-state plot. We’ve heard it all.
    Secondly, as regards those “two sides” to slavery … I was an early user, and then a quick early leaver, of Facebook. What drove me off quickly was back when one High Country News writer posted something about it being good that confederate flags were being taken down. I liked the post, only to have another High Country News writer tell me that he was a “proud southern boy” who felt differently. Perhaps, I naively added, we in the USA ought to follow the path of Germany after WWII, when nobody celebrated Nazism or put up statutes, but tried to learn from their horrible mistakes. That same writer attacked me, and off Facebook I went.
    Alas, we have much to learn from learning, and from those, the honest and well-meaning educators who want nothing more than to help young people make our society a better place to live.

  8. There is a narrative abroad that public schools are teaching children to hate this country, their parents, themselves for being white, etc, etc, etc. I taught in public schools for 35 years and this narrative is familiar to me. There is a counter narrative from the far left that public schools hide all of America’s faults behind the myth of a pure and noble America and indoctrinate students in a narrow and nationalistic patriotism that justifies American global imperialism.

    I really wish folks pushing those two narratives could just talk among themselves and leave the rest of us alone.

    What I saw across my decades in the classroom becomes my narrative. It has a lot more to do with making geometry engaging and fun. It had a lot to do with looking at proof and logical structures. It had a lot to do with making angry children feel heard and giving that curious child at little extra to consider. To the extent that questioning your assumptions is left wing, yes, I taught that. To the extent that an orderly classroom that followed expectations is right wing, yes, I taught that.

    What I never saw was colleagues teaching students to hate America at its most noble or to love the worst of America. There are about 3.5 million teachers in America. If one in a thousand were a right wing or left wing nut case, that is 3,500 nut cases. That means either side can cite case after case of whatever they want to believe. You can find whatever you are looking for. What you are looking for tells us about you, not schools.

  9. Collins is right on the money with her assessment. In our experience, she has just scratched the surface of the education system’s problem. As school district employees advocating for our children, we saw the ugly side of school district bureaucracy and top-down management. We packed up our children, sold our house, and moved to a district that really worked to help our children succeed – just the opposite of what we experienced in a Wyoming school district.

  10. Interesting article.

    I graduated from high school in 1968…and was glad to escape the propaganda, the authoritarianism, the “unity” of “school spirit”. About all I knew of history was that our founders were the smartest, wisest, bravest men ever, that the U.S. was always right, always fighting for something called freedom, of which there was little within the halls of the primary and secondary schools I attended in rural Calaveras County, a place very similar to Wyoming in attitude, except with trees and more brush.

    I learned the pledge (and was much relieved, when, by 5th grade, it ceased being mandatory), the words to patriotic songs, like America the Beautiful, My Country Tis of Thee, Yankee Doodle, and the anthem. And then, of course, there was always mandatory physical “education”, to help get us trained-up good for fighting wars for freedom…and against those evil “commies”.

    I learned nonsense about manifest destiny, and how “wonderful” our conquest of native peoples and their lands were, and to idolize “pioneers”. I learned that all our numerous wars were always fought only for only the best of reasons, and that we were the best people ever.

    I learned that obedience was a high priority and that power was not something to be questioned. In short, I was taught to be a good, little, obedient robot who questioned nothing. And that everything my country did was right. That went against my grain for 12 god-awful years.

    Incidentally, our war against the Vietnamese people and others in Southeast Asia was a topic not on the agenda for discussion. Most of us had no idea where Vietnam even was. In short, beyond arithmetic, I learned very little that was useful to me in my later life. About the only positive thing I can say about my primary and secondary education is that there were no cops in classrooms. Incidentally I find the title, “school resource officer” to be about as Orwellian as titles get; positively scary to me.

    College, and life in general taught me to see how badly I had been propagandized, by false histories, nonsense like “my country, right or wrong”, and “social studies” classes that were utterly vacuous and condescending to other cultures.

    I like to think that primary and secondary education have improved, become more reflective of real life, but the truth is I don’t know, since I haven’t hung around schoolyards since spring 1968. Knowing that having cops in schools is now commonplace, which I find hideous and frightening, makes it hard for me to really believe that the situation is very much different from that which existed during my public-school daze… Schools exist primarily to condition those with young minds to obey and “fit in”.

  11. When you think of left or right, conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, Mormon or Catholic, there’s plenty of instances of shouting down opinions that one set of thinkers or the other didn’t like. Collins’ point is that children deserve and education that gives them true facts and teaches them to analyze information and think.

    And let’s not pretend there’s no motivation for identity politics. If you are gay or trans, you know how people frightened by your identity will try to to keep you at bay at best, or at worst, stick you in a corner or in a jail or in a grave.

    Collins is on the mark here, even if those who disagree try to minimize her ideas or shout her down.

  12. And the legislature wonders why young people leave the state in droves, as soon as they possibly can.

  13. Wow! When the liberal elements of our society shout down conservative speakers, eliminate access on social media to unwelcomed opinions, cancel the economic opportunities of those who aren’t “woke”, and do it all in the name of social justice, how can it possibly be claimed they support critical thinking and open-mindedness?

    1. Robert, I echo your comments. I have read too many accounts of what is going on in schools around this great nation….scary is an understatement. Children are being taught to hate this country, their parents, themselves for being white, etc, etc, etc. There is no “open mindedness or critical thinking” being taught-just believe everything I tell you and you will only receive one perspective. Facts not included. The biggest threat to blacks (and this is said by many black conservatives; ie Candace Owens, Larry Elder and others) is the lack of fathers present and being held on a “plantation” by the democrats feeding the victim mentality to keep them voting for the poor policies, lack of school choice, the false narrative that “white cops are killing black people in huge numbers” that the left pushes. Go search out the facts and see that the social justice, liberal left doesn’t follow the science or the facts and doesn’t want to hear any different opinion.

      1. Have you ever verified your thoughts to be true, or are you just taking the word of right wing media as gospel?

        With multiple children that have gone through (1 still attending) our public schools, I can tell you that you are over exaggerating and straight up wrong.

        The parroting of nut job talking points and pretending that they are your own does nothing to help. If you have kids currently in school, doubtful you do, take some time to talk with them. Your time would be better spent speaking with your kids instead of immersing yourself in paranoid media.

        Cheers

    2. Have you not read the first amendment, or….?

      Spoilers: You aren’t entitled to an audience that agrees with you, you aren’t entitled to somebody else’s soap box, and you aren’t entitled to customers who don’t want to buy whatever it is you are selling.