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Social Studies

A Pro-Trump Student Group Will Launch a History Curriculum. It Could Get a COVID-19 Boost

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 31, 2021 7 min read
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Turning Point USA Founder Charlie Kirk as he finishes speaking at Turning Point USA Teen Student Action Summit at the Marriott Marquis in Washington on July 23, 2019.

A national student group with close ties to former President Donald Trump has announced a new curriculum that it says will combat left-wing bias in classrooms and teach students what it calls an accurate and inspiring version of American history.

Turning Point USA says its new “Turning Point Academy” initiative will “train thousands of educators nationwide” to use its upcoming curriculum and “help transform the way our young people perceive freedom, government, and free enterprise.”

The group is capitalizing on divisive debates about American history that have grown more prominent in recent years, and Turning Point’s effort is part of a pushback driven largely by conservatives to what they see as biased, revisionist classroom lessons. But the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on parents’ education decisions could factor into such efforts as well: Turning Point is explicitly targeting home schoolers at a time when the pandemic is driving increased interest in home schooling.

The news isn’t necessarily surprising. Turning Point USA has obvious links to Trump and the national pushback to the 1619 Project, a series of New York Times Magazine stories that put slavery at the center of the American experience and narrative. Turning Point’s founder and president, Charlie Kirk, served on the 1776 Commission, a group formed by Trump last year to promote what Trump called “patriotic education” and to counter the 1619 Project’s influence. That commission produced a report at the end of his administration downplaying the role of slavery in the founding of America and criticizing the influence of left-leaning academics on historical studies. President Joe Biden eliminated the 1776 Commission and scrubbed its report from the White House website on his first day in office.

The Turning Point news indicates that the debate stirred by Trump, the 1776 Commission, and others has if anything spread and not withered, regardless of Washington’s lack of statutory authority to control schools’ curriculum decisions.

“Today’s classroom curricula promote a false narrative about America instead of celebrating its remarkable achievements and its foundational values: free people, free enterprise, and free speech,” the group said. “This anti-American ideology threatens to destroy our country’s institutions and freedom.”

That critique in general is a familiar one. So what’s the potential role of the pandemic in all of this?

Turning Point’s announcement also directly markets the curriculum to parents who are home schooling their children, and indicates it will be available at no cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven extensive debate about the extent to which parents dissatisfied with traditional public schools’ response to the pandemic will seek different education options for their children over the long term, including home schooling.

EdWeek Research Center survey data indicated a rise in the numbers of parents home schooling their children last year. Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data indicates something similar, although the survey that signals this trend was adjusted last year to make a distinction between virtual learning and home schooling.

There are significant questions about how durable this trend will prove, as schools resume normal operations and many parents adjust their lives accordingly and seek to reenter the labor market.

Nevertheless, to the extent this trend outlives the pandemic, Turning Point’s curriculum could find a market among parents who’ve transitioned to home schooling and don’t like what they’ve seen from public schools in recent years when it comes to their response to COVID-19, history curriculum, or both.

Turning Point said it plans to release the new curriculum in the fall. The group did not respond to questions from Education Week.

Turning Point has hosted former secretary of education Betsy DeVos at its public events, and Kirk has previously stated that he sees education as a key issue.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, said Turning Point’s initiative also taps into longstanding sentiments that public schools, rather than creating a unifying civic and democratic culture, frequently lead to bitter fights over values and political wedge issues that some parents would prefer to avoid rather than try to win in those schools.

The pandemic, he added, has underscored this desire in education and beyond.

“We’re also living in a moment, accelerated by the pandemic, when more and more people have the power to opt out of those debates,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t like what your school is doing? Stay home and use Kirk’s curriculum.”

The power of exposing students to different ideas

Zimmerman added that this option can be productive, because it can sometimes cool off overheated debates. Yet he also argued that such debates and conflicts can be salutary and necessary, even as the pandemic exacerbates political polarization.

“History is a dialogue. History isn’t cast in stone,” Zimmerman said. “We just don’t let the kids in on the little secret when they enter the room.”

There’s a demonstrated market for what Turning Point is working on.

Prager University, a nonprofit group co-founded by conservative writer and talk-show host Dennis Prager that produces videos about topics like immigration and Islam, has promoted its materials to schools. The group has also launched “PragerU Educators and Parents.” Critics say PragerU’s products present a false view of events twisted by conservative political animus.

Separately, groups like the Discovery Institute and the recently launched Parents Defending Education have pushed back at what they’ve characterized as a counterproductive encroachment of identity politics into classrooms, a concept the 1776 Commission’s report also criticizes.

How Turning Point’s distinctive role as a student group—the group has chapters in K-12 schools in addition to colleges and universities—shapes its influence on this issue remains to be seen.

One recent shift in this area has been less attention on prominent leaders in U.S. history and more attention on the legacy of systems and concepts like slavery and protests, said Yohuru Williams, the founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., who studies the Civil Rights and Black-Power Movements. But he said the general conflict in this area is far from new.

“Before, it was about personalities or was driven by personalities and ‘great men’ theories of history. Now it’s about the teaching of slavery and protests,” Williams said. “It really is an extension of the culture wars.”

Earlier this year, a panel of academics and other experts proposed a new set of national guidelines for civics and history teachers. Among other things, this effort aims to carve out a kind of middle path for teachers to walk amid political conflict and turmoil over America’s ideals and its past.

This desire for some sort of synthesis between different factions clashing over interpretations of America has cropped up during recent debates about the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission.

In an Education Week Opinion piece, Rick Hess argued that while he opposed versions of American history that rely heavily on “whitewashed accounts of silver dollars and cherry trees,” he said too often many people in education reflexively define America as a villain.

“American history is a messy, troubled, but ultimately empowering tale of a people struggling to live up to our founding ideals. That tension is the beating heart of the American story,” wrote Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Williams said educators should guard against privileging efforts from people like Kirk with little to no experience or knowledge of school curriculum with too much serious analysis, lest they ultimately contribute to a “maintenance of the status quo.” Yet he also said exposing students to such ideas in the right context is important: “The point of the classroom is to expose students to diverse positions. An informed electorate thinks critically.”

Meanwhile, Zimmerman stressed that he opposes what the 1776 Commission produced and the general view of American history promoted by people like Kirk. But he added that those opposed to Kirk should refrain from simply dismissing his efforts or insulting him.

“Instead they should say: Here’s what’s inaccurate, distorted, or needs more evidence” about whatever Turning Point produces, Zimmerman said. “Let’s try to exhibit the skills that we are teaching.”

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