The Emerging War Over Social Studies Curriculum:
the Alberta Case
The ‘school wars’, in recent history, have raged over pedagogical issues; phonics vs whole language, Deweyist, Vygotskyist constructivism, project learning, cooperative learning vs traditional teacher centered education. This has taken a turn towards curriculum.
You may, or may not, have twigged to an emerging curriculum war over social science (social science, history, human geography…) education and the teaching associated with ‘Critical Race Theory’ or CRT in K12 schools and concerns with postsecondary education as well. Here are typical headlines as the issue ping pongs around the USA and emerges in Canada.
Idaho bans the teaching of Critical Race Theory.
Similar stories have emerged, particularly in Rebublican run, so called “red states” but has also percolated onto the national stage as well, with the much heralded 1619 Project touted by the New York Times, that essentially posits that race and racism are, in fact the dominant narrative or defining theme, in American history from the arrival of the very first slave ships in 1619, slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crowe, the KKK, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter, BLM movement, to this very day. Naturally, this narrative includes gender, class, LGBTQ, Indiginous oppression along the way but is heavily weighted to race. CRT declared that racism is ‘systemic’.
Trump himself declared war on Critical Race Theory, signaling the red state and MAGA world that this is an important mission.
The 1619 Project so provoked conservative forces, that the Trump administration quickly threw together a group of right wing historians who cut and pasted their way to a traditional “Great Man” history, countering the 1619 Project and the curriculum war was on. The war over statues of Confederate generals and even John A Macdonald is a subset of this curriculum war.
What is Critical Race Theory?
As attractive as Critical Race Theory is to the left, particularly the ‘identity politics’ left, it is equally repugnant to the far right. This piece by the Heritage Foundation sums up their view that CRT is radical, even neo Marxist.
It is interesting that the Heritage Foundation actually calls for the censoring of CRT in K12 classrooms, Their problem is that Gen X and Millennial teachers are very familiar with CRT which has been a prominent theme of social science, humanities and law faculties for decades. They are now applying it in K12 education.
The American right has staged its fights in the world of ideas in largely a separatist context since the 1960s. Their belief that they have largely “lost the universities' ' to the liberal, left progressives spawned a series of think tanks like Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Foundation, and their Canadian version of Fraser Institute, CD Howe, AIMS, Frontier and so on. These are essentially universities without students where right wing intellectuals publish studies and articles to push back on the growing progressive movement.
The K12 separatism involved voucher and charter schools where they could mix religion and right wing thought and serve it to young minds. It seems a conclusion has been drawn that conservatives can no longer take a ‘separate development’ POV as they notice that conservative political parties have lost two generations of students to CRT and progressive curriculum ideas. Conservatives in Canada and conservative Republicans have been shocked to learn and understand that younger, university educated voters have turned sharply against them. They have fueled the Bernie Sanders, AOC, squad BLM, ranks in the USA and in Canada the national Conservative Party is floundering with voters under 40 years old while those same younger voters are propping up the NDP and Green Parties.
In Canada, the first real manifestation of the conservative counter revolution has emerged in Alberta, the most consistently conservative province in Canada but a province also in rapid transition from a white, rural based ‘cowboy and oil rig roughneck’ way of life to an urban, multiracial, educated young population very familiar with the CRT POV. Of the two major cities, Edmonton has gone over to the NDP, and although the rural areas remain conservative, the provincial growth is all urban. Calgary is the political battleground with the conservative UCP losing in the polls as of late. Much has been said and written about the incompetent, inappropriate, reactionary, not to say racist curriculum. This piece is about placing it in an international context.
Provincial Premier Jason Kenney, a religious and political neanderthal conservative, blames the new ‘woke’ CRT thinking for the loss of the allegiance of the younger generations. In Canada, the black population is small but the First Nation FN indigenous population takes its place in the Canadian CRT world. FN are a large and strategic population in western Canada. The CRT position in the western hemisphere was not ‘discovered’ but ‘invaded’ by Columbus and all his followers. That this is stolen land and white folk are ‘settlers’ on the stolen land sits very badly with many white conservatives.
Kenney on curriculum says “ historical wrongs are taught out of context. Some say that we are n unjust settler state, and that our entire history is an unjust genocide”.
It is well known that Kenney has been spoiling for a fight with teachers, but his new curriculum in social studies has been widely panned by curriculum experts as incompetant, age inappropriate, and fact based rather than critical thinking. Its religious sections come about as close to indoctrination and proselytism as ‘social studies’ classes can come.
Social studies profs at all of Alberta’s faculties of education have voiced “grave concerns’. They say it is fact driven rather than understanding driven. It's the old memorized dates and battles form of history. It is developmentally inappropriate. By grade two, Kenney has them digesting the Fall of Rome, and Carthage, the Mongolian Invasions, while in reading class, they are not much past “cat and dog’ vocabulary. Primary grades have traditionally focused on the neighbourhood and the city or county.
The profs accuse Kenney of a one sided story telling of triumphal European colonialism. They call this a whitewashed Eurocentric history which has deeply disappointed parents as well as teachers.
Checkout these links.
In the end it is almost a sidebar, who wrote the social science curriculum. The key person was Chris Champion, already controversial for whitewashing Harper’s Citizenship Guide downplaying Indiginous history and promoting a British Imperialist and colonialist view. Large sections were seemingly lifted directly from Wikipedia, and the panel that supervised the curriculum writing included a Koch Industries linked operative well known for fighting public education. Most curriculum is written by teachers, in consultation with academic curriculum experts. Not in Alberta.
In the end, Kenney’s pathetically incompetent curriculum is the first beachhead of the right wing ‘whitelash’ at the teaching of CRT and its explicit critique of capitalism, colonialism, racism, neoliberalism and the various oppressions.
Stay tuned and fasten your seatbelt. The curriculum wars may have only just begun.