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Pennsylvania school district requires social studies classes to incorporate right-wing propaganda
Last Monday, the Pennridge School Board, located outside of Philadelphia, imposed a new social studies curriculum that will require teachers to incorporate lessons from the 1776 Curriculum, a controversial K-12 course of study developed by Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution that promotes right-wing ideologies.
The curriculum was developed in part by Jordan Adams, an educational consultant with no experience developing curricula for public schools. Adams launched his company, Vermilion Education, in March 2023. The Pennridge School Board hired Adams in April, paying $125 per hour for his services. The contract includes no limit on the number of hours, no specific deliverables, and no termination date.
Adams holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hillsdale College and a master’s in humanities from another private conservative school, the University of Dallas. He does not hold any degrees in education. After graduating, Adams returned to Hillsdale College as an employee, where he promoted the 1776 Curriculum. On July 1, in a private presentation to Moms for Liberty, a far-right organization that pushes for changes in educational policy, Adams described himself as a "fox..in the henhouse." He bragged that "the right people are freaking out" about his contract with Pennridge Schools. As of a few months ago, Adams had no other public school clients.
Although Adams does not have the qualifications to write curriculum, it was revealed during a Pennridge School Board meeting on August 21 that Adams independently wrote aspects of the new social studies curricula.
Adams' proposed curriculum faced opposition from several members of the Pennridge School Board and the district’s own academic experts. Jenna Vitale, the K-12 social studies supervisor, cited concerns in a recent school board meeting about the “age-appropriateness of the elementary curriculum [developed by Adams], highlighting… the lack of the appropriate history background for incoming fourth and fifth graders and the elimination of 19th century U.S. history from the secondary social studies curriculum.” Vitale also cited concerns about Adams' proposal to shift the third-grade curriculum from a focus on Native Americans to "Colonial America."
The 1776 Curriculum, created in response to the New York Times’ 1619 project, claims that it is an accurate and unbiased curriculum that “seeks to tell the entire grand narrative of the American story.” Hillsdale’s curriculum, however, includes inaccuracies and skewed interpretations of America’s history.
For example, the Hillsdale curriculum repeatedly suggests that America's Founding Fathers had deep reservations about slavery. The ninth grade Pennridge curriculum will require a Hillsdale lesson that encourages students to “[c]onsider also that even among the southern founders who supported slavery or held slaves, several leading founders expressed regret and fear of divine retribution for slavery in America, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.” The curriculum states that, “Some freed their slaves as well, such as George Washington.” The same wording is also included in the required Hillsdale lesson for fourth graders.
Hillsdale's description of the Founding Fathers' views on slavery is highly misleading. In 1781, Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia about his belief in the “biological differences between blacks and whites.” Jefferson also had a “purported relationship” with his slave Sally Hemings, and it is believed that he fathered at least some of Hemings’ children. While Madison argued that slaves “were ‘not like merchandize’ and were ‘not consumed,’ and thus could not be held as property,” Madison chose to “not free his slaves in his will,” instead leaving them to his wife, who “sold them off to pay debts." While Washington did leave instructions to free his slaves after his death, the instructions also stated that the slaves should not be freed until after his wife had also passed. Washington also “order[ed] an enslaved man to be whipped for walking on the lawn” and “aggressively pursued runaway” slaves. This context is not mentioned in the Hillsdale unit.
A required Hillsdale lesson for Pennridge School District third graders covers the “history of slavery in world history.” The lesson encourages teachers to downplay the prevalence of slavery in America, instead emphasizing slavery in other parts of the world. “Overall, of the nearly 11 million Africans who survived being brought to the Western Hemisphere, around 3 percent, or about 350,000, were brought to the North American continent, with the rest of all Africans taken to other colonies in the Caribbean and South America,” the lesson states.
The 1776 Curriculum has garnered criticism from academic experts. “What [Hillsdale has] done is they’ve simply left stuff out in an attempt to shape a vision of patriotism,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, told NBC News. “What they also are trying to do is replace an approach to teaching that teaches students how to think with an approach that teaches the students what to think.”
During a meeting earlier this month, Pennridge School Board member Jonathan Russell asked why the Hillsdale curriculum was listed as "required" for teachers when the proposed inclusion of Hillsdale lessons was originally pitched as an additional resource. Vitale said that Adams told her other board members “asked him to say that it was required.”
By a 5-4 vote, the Pennridge School Board voted to impose the new ninth grade curriculum this year. The vote occurred on the first day of school, giving the teachers little to no time to prepare lessons based on the new guidelines. Vitale stated that she was “very nervous” about teachers not having enough time to prepare lessons based on the new curriculum. (The School Board voted to implement the new first through fifth grade curriculum beginning in the fall of 2024).
Hillsdale's revisionist history
The 1776 Curriculum spends considerable time on the meaning behind the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” A lesson now required for Pennridge School District ninth graders instructs teachers to pose the question of whether “women and slaves were included in this understanding of equality.” At the time, women did not have the right to vote, had limited property rights, and married women could not earn their own income. Nevertheless, the Hillsdale lesson argues that “the Founders meant that men and women share equally in human dignity and in possession of natural rights or freedoms that are simply part of being human.”
The lesson claims that, despite the limitation on women's rights, “[w]hat was unique to America was the right to vote at all and then the relatively rapid rate at which the right to vote was expanded to” women. This statement, however, is misleading. According to Pew Research Center, in 1893, New Zealand granted women the right to vote, and “[a]t least 19 other countries also did so prior to the U.S. passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.” The 1776 Curriculum also creates justifications for not granting women the right to vote, insinuating that it was logical to only give the franchise to men, as they are the ones who “would be called to give their lives up for their country” and “had a high personal stake in what the country did regarding various policies, including going to war.”
For fifth grade, the new curriculum includes a Hillsdale lesson on the Civil War that argues that many Southerners believed the Civil War was about “states’ rights” rather than “preserv[ing] the institution of slavery.” The required Hillsdale lesson states that “[t]he majority of Southerners were not slaveholders and while fighting for their states would preserve slavery, many common Southerners fought for the argument of states’ rights rather than to preserve the institution of slavery.”