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With history, civics a 'battlefield,' South Dakota looks to revise social studies

The South Dakota legislature gave Gov. Kristi Noem $900,000 to upgrade the state's history and civics curricula just in time for a once-in-every-seven-years revision of the state's social studies standards. It's still anyone's bet what'll emerge from the process.

Rep. Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican, speaks on the floor of the South Dakota House during the 2021 legislative session. Mortenson was one of a handful of legislators to speak in favor of Gov. Kristi Noem's plan to invest $900,000 into upgrading the state's civics and history curriculum, which was due for a standards review in 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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PIERRE, S.D. — The last time the social studies curriculum in South Dakota underwent revision, the critics circled.

According to publicly available minutes on the Department of Education’s website from 2014 and 2015, some members of the public were angered about teaching Christopher Columbus.

Rep. Liz May, a Kyle Republican, falsely accused the curriculum of being in lock-step with the maligned Common Core standards.

Finally, a third member of the public said he wanted students to pass a mandatory "civics citizenship" test.

That man — Ben Jones — now sits atop the South Dakota Historical Society, is the official state historian, and may play a larger role in the social studies standards revision.


“There’s no state test in history or civics, so the only way to really know is to wind up, as I was, grading college freshman history papers," said Jones, a former faculty member at Dakota State University. "And I believe I prevailed upon most of my colleagues in that standards revision group to say, ‘We’re not getting there.’”

Jones is quick to note a lack of historical literacy “is not just (a) South Dakota” problem. He told Forum News Service on Tuesday, March 16, that many Americans are “ functionally ignorant ” about how their government works, and he — at least, partly — blames this absence for last summer’s civil unrest following the death of George Floyd.

“And now when we see people tearing down the statues of Frederick Douglass or Grant, like we saw last summer, it's further evidence that states need to rethink how we teach history,” added Jones.

Former Education Secretary Jones was appointed to his new role in December by Gov. Kristi Noem.

South Dakota's Republican governor has associated violence and civil unrest with an absence of civics knowledge. This past legislative cycle, Noem successfully got lawmakers to tuck a $900,000 one-time investment in upgrading civics curriculum into a larger spending bill.

In other words, the state was already ready to revise social studies. But now it'll do so with added political momentum, though it's uncertain what will transpire in the working group that will develop a proposal.

Slides that the Department of Education presented to the Joint Committee on Appropriations lay out a pilot program, proposed teacher professional development, and offer an instructional materials review promising to “publicly share the degree to which” a school’s standards align with the state’s.

At least one of the agency’s goals?


“Students who appreciate our country, state, and our story,” says the slide .

Patrick Hales , coordinator of the secondary teacher education program at South Dakota State University, said distrust can ensue when a high-profile politician decides to rewrite curriculum, especially when the standard exhorts values, rather than knowledge.

"I would be worried about a curriculum saying, 'Everyone will walk away with an appreciation,'" Hales said. "'Appreciation' is not a measurable standard."

From the moment Noem announced her push for civics and South Dakota history, critics warned — both in statehouse and schoolhouses — that the governor was entering an arena typically left in local control. As Hales said, politicians of both stripes seek to put history on their side.

“Education is a great whipping boy for a lot of this stuff,” Hales said. “History, civics education is particularly this sort of battlefield for politics.”

Hales said some people blame lack of school equity when more voters don’t support liberal policies. Similarly, Noem herself scolded a “lack of civics” for the attempt to overthrow the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and stop certification of President Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College.

Nevertheless, if the South Dakota Board of Education Standards’ process mirrors the last go-around, historians may face accusations from all sides, of being communist sympathizers or ignoring Lakota history.

One historian, Sarah Jacobs, who is education coordinator for the Agriculture Heritage Museum and helps lead the state’s National History Day program, says she hopes standards tie students to local libraries, museums, and personalities.


Jacobs referenced a student in Salem, S.D., who through a history project discovered service medals awarded to great-uncle who died in a POW camp during the Korean War.

“They might not know what history is in their own backyard,” Jacobs said.

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