Governor Kristi Noem has offered to build divisively conservative Hillsdale College of Michigan an entire campus in South Dakota. Some Republican legislators think it would be simpler to turn Black Hills State into a Hillsdale branch.
Representative Scott Odenbach (R-31/Spearfish) proposes House Bill 1070 to establish a “Center for American Exceptionalism” on his hometown state university campus. HB 1070 tasks this new center with five major projects to “make the state’s public universities contributing, meaningful, and relevant partners in civics and social studies education”:
- Working to develop, distribute, and annually update a K-12 curriculum available to all public schools in American history and exceptionalism, explaining why America rose to greatness and how to keep it that way, and teaching students to balance critical thinking with love of country. The curriculum shall include a South Dakota history and American Indian tribes component focusing on the proud history of the indigenous peoples of South Dakota;
- Providing multi-media content speaking directly to state social studies standards; and
- Working with K-12 teachers, including providing professional development workshops, to help students:
- Understand American history, government institutions, constitutional rights, and cultural contexts in South Dakota and beyond;
- Develop personal agency and confidence to participate in the civic life of the state and nation through voting, volunteerism, informed discourse, and lifelong involvement; and
- Appreciate civil discourse, free speech, and engagement with people of all perspectives;
- Oversee the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Program, as developed by the Center for Civic Education, and its promotion and implementation throughout public schools; and
- Develop, implement, and annually update a curriculum available to be taught in two courses at the state’s public colleges and universities:
- A course comparing communist/socialist countries to Western-style democratic countries throughout history; and
- A course comparing command-style socialist economies to free-market capitalist economies throughout history [2023 House Bill 1070, excerpt from Section 1, filed 2023.01.13].
Tasks 1 and 2, cranking out content related to the harmful and radical Hillsdale-politicized K-12 social studies standards that Governor Noem intends to shove down kids’ throats, may serve to launder the materials that Hillsdale produces and wants to force into every classroom in America.
Task 3 strikes the flint near the tinderbox. Teachers used to get to work on the K-12 social studies standards, but Governor Noem has shut them out of that process because they’re all too leftist and liberal and hate America. Does Rep. Odenbach really intend his Center for American Exceptionalism to work with teachers or just work on them to ingrain his preferred propaganda into them?
Task 4 appears to connect this project with some actual good content, the We the People program that has a long tradition of success at Spearfish High School. But the national Center for Civic Education already has a state coordinator for We the People, Wes Brown at the Vantage Institute. Does HB 1070 intend to place this successful private program under state control and wreck it?
Task 5 is the only part of HB 1070 directing Black Hills State University to exert itself on educating state university students with the creation of two courses to compare communist economics and politics with democratic and free-market systems. The text of HB 1070 is value-neutral—it doesn’t direct the courses to say that democracy and free markets produce and protect sliced bread. But the inclusion of the term “American exceptionalism” in the center’s name indicates the conclusion Representative Odenbach and his Republican co-sponsors—Reps. Fred Deutsch, Randy Gross, Carl Perry, and Tony Venhuizen and Senator Ryan Maher—want professed and learned: America is the best!
The most problematic phrase in this bill is tucked into Section 1 subpoint 1’s dictation of part of the purpose of the K-12 curriculum the center would spin: “teaching students to balance critical thinking with love of country.” Representative Odenbach’s language suggests that critical thinking and love of country stand in opposition to each other and require balancing. Does he really intend to create a curriculum that says to students, “It’s all good and fine to think critically about politics and economics and history and human rights, but sometimes you have to shut off your brain and just belt out Lee Greenwood with all your heart”?
America is a democracy, a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our democracy is predicated on the Jeffersonian idea that we can educate the people and trust them to exercise their critical thinking to produce better outcomes than any kings pretending to exercise divine right over our fates. That exceptional idea is the rational core of American exceptionalism. Thinking critically should lead us to love this exceptional country. To portray critical thinking and love of country as opposing forces misses the whole point of what HB 1070’s Center for American Exceptionalism is supposed to promote.
Whatever Representative Odenbach is trying to do with HB 1070, he wants it done now. HB 1070 includes an emergency clause, declaring that the Center for American Exceptionalism is so “necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions” that an emergency exists and that the state should spend $150,000 to open this center immediately.
An emergency? Hmm… teachers and professors have been creating social studies curriculum for generations with a center at BHSU telling them how to do it. HB 1070 hardly seems necessary to support existing public institutions. With the center’s “nonprofit board of directors”, appointed by BHSU’s president, authorized to “seek all available sources of funding,” HB 1070 just seems a convenient way to open the door for Hillsdale College to divert some of its cash to South Dakota along with its right-wing whitewashing agenda.