22 Observations About the Koch Brothers-History Course Issue

Some things you might not know about the Founding Principles course—and a few observations
Insider Test Prep

(A note on the format: Early this year, my friend and former colleague Tommy Tomlinson wrote a post for Forbes’ website about the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, his behavior during a post-game interview, and the largely racial backlash Sherman caught as a result. It went massively, insanely viral. After spending a while stewing over how best I might write about the debate over North Carolina’s state-mandated Founding Principles course, I decided to follow the form. I expect to receive roughly 0.0000001 percent of the hits Tommy’s post got, but here goes.)

The state Department of Public Instruction on Wednesday decided to “highly recommend” the use of instructional materials from an Arlington, Va.-based organization called the Bill of Rights Institute in a high school course the state mandated in 2011. The institute receives money from the billionaire, conservative Koch family, and some history teachers worry that the curriculum will inject right-wing partisanship into the teaching of history in North Carolina public schools.

Some things you might not know about all this, and a few observations:

1. The Bill of Rights Institute doesn’t just receive grant money from Koch organizations—two of the four members of its Board of Directors hold leadership positions in them. One, Mark Humphrey, is a senior vice president at Koch Industries.

2. Here’s the state law, the “Founding Principles Act,” which mandates a course that covers “the Founding Philosophy and the Founding Principles of government for a free people,” starting in the 2014-15 school year.

3. Students have to pass the course to graduate.

4. According to the N&O story on it this morning, the law was “inspired by proposed legislation promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group backed by major corporations.”

5. The law was “inspired by” ALEC’s work in the same sense that a photocopy is “inspired by” the original. Much of the language in the North Carolina law is taken wholesale from the ALEC model legislation.

6. The mandatory Founding Principles course isn’t just a North Carolina initiative. It’s nationwide. Last year, versions of the Founding Principles Act were introduced in the legislatures of 13 states—Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

7. In eight of those states, Republicans are the majority or supermajority party in both legislative houses.

8. Anyone who expects the Bill of Rights Institute’s course materials to resemble some Birch Society screed is in for a disappointment. Much of it is just basic civics.

9. (That also makes you wonder why it’s necessary, but that’s another issue.)

10. The goofiest part of the coursework is a handout that turns the Bill of Rights into a song, sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” (“Duuuuue process riiiiiiiiiights!”)

11. Still, there’s a subtle authoritarian bent to a lot of this stuff, especially when it discusses “civic virtue” by citing a Benjamin Franklin quotation: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

12. Among the discussion questions for this exercise are: “Why are only virtuous people capable of freedom?,” and “Why would people who fail to display virtue need masters?”

13. This debate over the Founding Principles course is coming the same week as another over the state’s AP History course, which its critics believe is full of liberal—more accurately, globalist—bias.

14. The man leading the national charge against the College Board’s framework for AP History is Larry Krieger, a North Carolina native and UNC and Wake Forest graduate who began his teaching career in 1970 at Olympic High in Charlotte.

15. Krieger’s primary objection to the AP History guidelines: they don’t sufficiently stress “American exceptionalism,” which he defines as the principle that the United States is “a force for good in the world,” spreading democracy and freedom. There’s reference in the guidelines to Manifest Destiny as driven by white racial and American cultural superiority, for example.

16. The man who introduced the idea of “American exceptionalism” is Alexis de Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America wrote this: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”

17. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that de Tocqueville used “exceptional” to mean “unique,” not “better,” and there’s nothing there about America being a force for good in the world.

18. Hell, de Tocqueville thought it was only our ties to Europe that allowed Americans to neglect culture “without relapsing into barbarism.”

19. All of this is about Americans’ ongoing struggle with history—what’s worth celebrating and venerating, what isn’t, and whether too much focus on either one discredits or obscures the other. It’s about trying to determine who we are, and how difficult it is to settle on a solid answer.

20. The Founding Principles side asserts that the United States is special because it was, alone among nations, founded on a set of ideas, and a series of laws and documents that codified those ideas.

21. What you might call the College Board side understands that much of American history consists of tracking how at odds the reality has been with the founding principles, and that’s something high school students should learn, too.

22. After the last couple of weeks, really, how could anyone reasonably object to that?