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Is the U.S. a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values

Michigan spent five years debating American history education. The biggest question was how to describe the nation’s government.

Bruising political fights are usual business in Becky Debowski’s eighth-grade social studies classroom. From a model Constitutional Convention to a bare-knuckle debate in Congress over slavery, she regularly has students assume roles of partisans throughout American history, like Abraham Lincoln and John C. Calhoun.

After the exercises, the class comes back together to debate whether the nation lived up to what the state of Michigan calls “core democratic values,” such as equality, liberty and diversity.

For decades, the values have been the heart of the state learning standards in social studies, a doorstop of a document that guides what teachers of history, civics, economics and geography cover in their lesson plans.

“I’m really proud of my students,” Ms. Debowski said. “They can handle the complexity.” So she was angry last year when she learned of a proposed revision of the state standards, in which the word “democratic” was dropped from “core democratic values,” and the use of the word “democracy” was reduced.

The changes were made after a group of prominent conservatives helped revise the standards. They drew attention to a long-simmering debate over whether “republic” is a better term than “democracy” to describe the American form of government.

That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate. But members of the conservative group also brought to the table the argument that K-12 social studies should be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents.

They contended that the curriculum ought to focus more on the nation’s triumphs than its sins. And they pushed for revisions that eliminated “climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights.

After a local publication, Bridge Magazine, reported the changes, the backlash in this political swing state was intense. In response, the state brought a broader group of Michiganders into the process to redraft the standards, which will be presented to the State Board of Education on April 9. The board, an elected body with eight members, will then vote on whether to adopt the document.

“Social studies is not rocket science,” said Jim Cameron, who led the committee’s work. “It’s more difficult.”

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