South Dakota legislators push to teach American exceptionalism in public education

A group of South Dakota lawmakers pushed forward an initiative on Monday that offers an optional social studies curriculum for K-12 and university students rooted in “American exceptionalism” and the founding ideals of the U.S.

Programs offering similar educational models have been explored in other states, like a Michigan-based program from conservative Hillsdale College that has found support in South Dakota, Tennessee and Florida lawmakers. But the Center for American Exceptionalism out of Black Hills State University, South Dakota’s largest teacher preparation institute, would present a state-funded one.

The bill passed through the House education committee, which recommended it go to the state budget-making process. Should the bill be enacted, it would be the first of its kind, and would involve the center developing public university courses comparing the U.S. with socialist and communist nations, and overseeing a K-12 social and civic curriculum from the Center for Civic Education called, “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Program.”

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Prime sponsor Republican Rep. Scott Odenbach emphasized that the $150,000 bill aims to balance critical thinking with a love for the U.S.

He said when students graduate from institutions, “they should love America.”

Black Hills State University political science professor Nicholas Drummond praised the center’s proposed goal of creating a unified history by generating hope for the future based on founding ideals. He argued the country is going down two paths; one of excessive individualism and another of warring identity politics.

South Dakota Republicans are advocating for a K-12 curriculum that teaches American exceptionalism in public schools

“I spent far too much time studying the decline of this country,” Drummond said. “(It) leads us away from a conception of a national interest in the common good.”

Odenbach referenced Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s recent enthusiasm for social studies that embrace the nation’s founding ideals. He also argued it would help school districts avoid education material companies that can charge the state $400,000 to implement even just one content area.

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Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “American exceptionalism” has long been a “rallying cry” on the political right, but he was not aware of anywhere else where such an educational goal has been enshrined in law. He added that liberals have also embraced ideals like equality and human rights that are detailed in the nation’s founding documents.

The state’s standards for social studies have been under review for over a year, and education groups have been critical of Noem’s effort to infuse “patriotic” education goals into them. State education groups on Monday also pointed out limits to Odenbach’s plan, such as its lack of long-term funding and being out of touch with individual schools.

Diana Miller, who lobbies for the state’s 25 largest schools, said the proposed center would disrupt a delicate chain of command. She questioned why this bill involves adding another government entity and board into local school districts.

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“K through 12 education is not broken,” Miller said.