WILLMAR — State Rep. Dean Urdahl’s objections to proposed new state standards for teaching social studies aren’t as much about what would be added as they are about what’s missing.
Urdahl, R-Grove City, spoke Friday morning in a virtual town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar.
Baker had invited Urdahl to address the state standards. Urdahl taught social studies at New London-Spicer Schools for 35 years and has been in the Minnesota House 18 years.
Baker said he’s observed Urdahl in committee hearings and has learned a lot from him about the time and detail that goes into developing the guidelines for teaching in public schools.
Urdahl has long been concerned about a lack of civics education in schools. He was behind a new law several years ago to require students to take the U.S. citizenship exam in high school.
A first draft of proposed new standards was released in December. After an initial comment period, a 44-member team decided to slow the process. The group will meet again in March, April and May.
“What I’ve seen so far gives me cause to question their commitment to history,” Urdahl said, and he would like to see the entire process start over.
Urdahl listed a number of things that were missing from the social studies standards, including the Civil War and Minnesota’s involvement in it. Also omitted, he said, Minnesotans’ involvement in and response to World War I, World War II and subsequent conflicts.
Learning about the wars and their impact are “foundations of history,” Urdahl said.
Issues to be added include systemic racism and how democracy has included or excluded some groups. There’s a focus on Reconstruction and its connection to later discrimination.
“I am not suggesting that any of these things aren’t needed in our standards,” Urdahl said. “We have a problem with racism in our state and our country, and we need to recognize that.”
However, “I have a problem with the things that are being excluded, particularly our history,” he added. “It’s hard to evaluate the impact of the Civil War if you don’t know the history of the Civil War itself.”
It should be possible for schools to recognize all cultures and teach about America’s accomplishments as well as its mistakes, Urdahl said, because balance is needed to produce well-informed students.
On civics education, Urdahl said the state is failing to teach civics, which is “fundamental to our success as a state and nation.”
Urdahl shared information from the College Board to reinforce the importance of learning civics:
The most important skills connected to college success are knowledge of computer science and the U.S. Constitution.
77% of Americans 18-34 can’t name one of their state’s U.S. senators;
Two-thirds of Americans can name at least one American Idol judge but only 15% can name the chief justice of the United States.
Two-thirds of Americans can name only one branch of government, and one-third can’t name any.
He quoted Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a crusader for civics education — “Knowledge of our system of government and our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed along through the gene pool. Each generation must be taught these basics.”
Urdahl said he continues to pursue more thorough civics instruction in schools. He wants to see a civics course for credit for juniors and seniors. It is now taught in ninth grade.
He suggested his listeners contact legislators and the Minnesota Department of Education and ask school boards and school officials to do the same.
Baker and state Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, also spoke in support of civics education.
Lang, a member of the Minnesota National Guard, said he was surprised at some of the proposals. Minnesotans should learn about the state’s pivotal role in the Civil War and at Gettysburg, he said.
In many cases, “the biggest challenge (for schools) is there’s not enough time in the day,” Baker said.
In an open question-and-answer session after Urdahl left the meeting, Baker talked about the need to reopen businesses in the state, a focus of his in the Legislature.
When concerns were raised about continued isolation of nursing home residents, Lang said progress on COVID-19 vaccinations should change that very soon.
Residents “need a hug more than anything,” Baker said.
Asked about the potential for recreational marijuana, Baker and Lang said they do not support the idea. States that have approved it have found that it hasn’t brought in the tax revenue they expected and has increased law enforcement costs, Lang said.
“I will always be against recreational marijuana,” Baker said. “It’s a personal issue for me.”