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States mandate ‘bias-free’ primary sources in U.S. history classes

A growing number of state legislatures have mandated primary sources in American history classes to purge racially divisive bias from K-12 public education as the school year begins.

Ten states have passed laws requiring primary sources, according to the Ohio-based Ashbrook Center, an independent program at Ashland University that supplies core documents and trains teachers in their use. The new requirements have created a spike in the number of teachers contacting the center, which launched in 1983.

“Studying the words of those who actually lived and breathed American history fosters true understanding, appreciation for, and application of our past to the challenges we face today, free of bias and whitewashing,” Jeff Sikkenga, the center’s director, said in an email.

A political science professor at a private Christian university, Mr. Sikkenga said 30,000 teachers, mostly at public schools, will use the center’s materials this year.

Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado are mandating primary sources for the first time.

Kentucky’s new law requires public schools to use copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents from a list supplied by Ashbrook.

In Arizona, House Bill 2008 prescribes lessons on the “original intent of the U.S. founding documents” and on “defending the blessings of liberty inherited from the prior generations and secured by the U.S. Constitution.”

Colorado’s law instructs teachers to cover the nation’s founding documents and basic civics knowledge.

“It is dependent on the teacher and the philosophy of the school or district on how the documents are interpreted,” said Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver.

The other seven states that recently passed laws to require primary sources are Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.

Florida’s law will go into effect at the start of the 2023-24 school year.

South Carolina’s Senate Bill 38 specifies that schools must teach “the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Declaration of Independence to each student.”

The focus on primary sources comes amid reports of declining civics knowledge. Last week, an annual poll from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 56% of adults could not name the three branches of the federal government — executive, legislative and judicial — and fewer than one-quarter knew any of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Kimberly Fletcher, president of the conservative group Moms for America, says using primary sources addresses the concern of many parents that textbooks indoctrinate students with a liberal bias while ignoring basic knowledge.

“Source documents are the most accurate account of history,” Ms. Fletcher said in an email. “If we are going to make any serious repairs to our education system, we need to lay a foundation of truth and honesty using the accounts of those who were actually there and wrote about it.”

Practiced in small circles for decades, primary source education resembles the Great Books programs at many U.S. colleges. Advocates say it challenges students to think for themselves rather than parrot a liberal or conservative bias.

Nevada public high school teacher Kevin Barney, who works at Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas, uses Ashbrook materials in his Advanced Placement U.S. History classes.

Rather than teach things his students can look up on their smartphones, Mr. Barney says he uses the source documents to frame discussions “on what they’re going to do with the facts” after graduation.

“How can they turn the facts into an argument?” Mr. Barney said, noting that his students are predominantly the children of Latino immigrants.

Robert Bortins, CEO of the Christian home education program Classical Conversations, says homeschoolers have used primary sources for years partly because “timeless materials” are cheaper than textbooks.

“You would need to have teachers that help students ask and discuss good questions, as well as teaching students to read at a level that they can understand the documents,” said Mr. Bortins, whose group provides a mix of primary and secondary texts. “These are all vital skills of a self-governing society.”

According to Mr. Bortins, the number of U.S. homeschooled children enrolled in the North Carolina-based program jumped from 108,540 in the fall of 2020 to 125,371 in the fall of last year.

Not everyone is sold on the idea that the new state laws will remove political bias from public education.

“First, all writing contains bias,” said Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair of the Washington Homeschool Organization. “Second, not all historical events have primary source material. No one in Pompeii wrote, ‘Yikes! Here comes the lava!’”

Connor Boyack, president of the free-market Libertas Institute in Utah, recently published a children’s textbook on American history. He says it’s impossible to teach primary sources without explaining their context.

“We can’t convey any of that context without bias or interpretation,” said Mr. Boyack, author of the “Tuttle Twins” books. “Instead, parents have to recognize that their children are going to learn history through an interpretive lens of some sort, so they have to be cautious and concerned about what that lens is.”

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