WATERS: Revisit history standards, lack of school choice

Published 12:07 pm Thursday, June 25, 2020

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After decades of debate, Jefferson Davis’ statue has left the Capitol Rotunda, headed for the national historic site commemorating the slavery-supporting Confederate president’s birthplace.

Davis claimed that “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, social and a political blessing.”

Davis’ life and views stand in stark contrast to the values and accomplishments of those famous Kentuckians represented by statues that remain in the Capitol Rotunda, including President Abraham Lincoln, former U.S. Sens. Alben Barkley and Henry Clay as well as Ephraim McDowell, one of America’s earliest medical pioneers whose father helped draft the constitution that accompanied Kentucky’s admittance to the Union in 1792.

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While most Kentuckians understand that personalities are critical to a well-rounded understanding of history, the commonwealth’s new academic standards for public schools drastically diminish the attention given to individual contributions of great Americans and Kentuckians of the past, including most of those represented by the remaining statues.

Such an approach to teaching history increases the likelihood that the significant impact of these heroes on our nation’s founding and development will get lost in bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that only covers depersonalized events and vague concepts rather than specific — often sacrificial — contributions made by individuals.

Ironically, though Lincoln’s statue remains in the Capitol, his name and individual life story are absent from the commonwealth’s new social studies standards, which are supposed to cover material — including history — our students are expected to know to obtain a complete and quality education.

How can you have standards in Kentucky that don’t even mention the name of the 16th president, who guided the nation through its most tumultuous history?

Defenders of the new standards claim it’s not necessary to mention giant contributors to understand the history they created.


Imagine a governor trying to use such a line of inane reasoning while having Lincoln’s statue hauled out of the Capitol.

“After all, folks, we can just talk in general terms; we don’t need to get into the contributions made by individuals to freeing the slaves or holding the Union together.”

State law prohibits public school students from being questioned on a test about any material not included in the standards.

Since Lincoln and many of America’s founders go unmentioned, how can public school students legally be questioned about them on tests?

It was important to remove Davis’ statue not just because he generally stood for secession and the Confederacy, but because the individual values represented by the subject of that sculpture are antithetical to this nation’s founding principle that “all men are created equal.”

The remaining sculptures honor not just movements and events but individuals who, like Lincoln, contributed to this nation’s development — and the many righteous portions of its history — in sundry and unique ways.

Even if Lincoln might be mentioned in a discussion of the Civil War, that still leaves out many aspects about his individual life — including his birth in central Kentucky, the hardships his family faced, how he was largely self-educated and his perseverance in the face of numerous political failures.

Will such character-building lessons get taught since they’re outside the approved standards?

Revisiting the presence of Davis’ statue in the Capitol was the right thing to do.

Now, the legislature should reconsider Kentucky’s social studies standards and demand that history’s individuals be included.

Lawmakers also must reassess the abhorrent lack of school choice available to Kentucky parents, who should be empowered to enroll their children in schools with complete standards, insuring kids learn not only about our nation’s mistakes but also its exceptional greatness and the lives of those who helped forge the path to its prominence.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.