Rep. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, on the House floor during the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
After twice missing passage by just one vote, it’s likely that next year South Dakota lawmakers will, once again, have to decide if they want to create a Center for Exceptionalism at Black Hills State University.
According to the failed legislation, the center would make curriculum available to K-12 schools that would teach “students to balance critical thinking with love of country.” The center would create professional development for K-12 history and civics teachers. It would oversee the implementation in public schools of “We the People,” which promotes civic competence in students. The center would develop two courses for the state’s public universities comparing communist countries with Western-style democracies and comparing socialist economies with free-market economies.
A bill like this may have sailed through the Legislature unnoticed if the word “exceptionalism” wasn’t in the title of the center. This has become a buzzword on the right, implying that the history of the United States allows it a sense of superiority when compared to other countries. Those who prefer a warts-and-all version of their nation’s history are often referred to as “woke” or dismissed as unpatriotic.
The bill was sponsored in the House by Spearfish Republican Scott Odenbach, who told his colleagues that an integrated curriculum created for students in kindergarten through college would make schools “work together to train up our young people to better understand history and become more engaged in civic involvement within a framework of love of country.”
Love of country was on display during the House debate. Howard Republican Tim Reisch said he originally thought he would vote against the bill but ended up signing on as a sponsor. “Why? Because we live in the greatest country in the world. I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing the continual drumbeat about what is wrong with America.”
While quick to say that they, too, were patriotic, some lawmakers pointed to the shortcomings in the bill. Brookings Republican Roger DeGroot pointed out that no one from the Board of Regents or state Board of Education testified in favor of it. He wondered how this new curriculum would fit into the two-year struggle that the state has gone through as it tries to set new social studies standards.
Critics of the bill are right to wonder just how a curriculum that sees this country as exceptional will handle the darker aspects of its history. Will slavery be explained away as a whoopsie-daisy? Will the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II be dismissed as just a misunderstanding? Will the genocide of Native American tribes be consigned to the small print of a footnote?
The bill failed twice in the House on identical 46-23 votes. Because the bill had $150,000 in funding attached, it needed a two-thirds majority of 47. The best bet for Odenbach is to get BHSU to raise the money if, as he says, the school is really interested in a center devoted to exceptionalism. This year, if all his bill needed was a simple majority, it would have flown through the House.
Almost as disturbing as the attempt to force patriotism and love of country into a school curriculum was the off-hand way that lawmakers treated the $150,000 in funding. Most South Dakota families would see $150,000 as a windfall. For legislators, it was chump change.
Odenbach characterized it as “a very small amount” compared to the price tags on other legislation. “One hundred fifty thousand dollars is not a large dollar amount,” according to Elkton Republican Randy Gross. Maybe spending $400 million on prisons or cutting taxes by $100 million has made lawmakers lose their perspective about the way they spend taxpayers’ money.
One of the shortcomings of the exceptionalism bill was that the $150,000 was a one-time allotment, with no plan in the legislation for future funding. Proponents said, “Try it for a year. See what happens.” Even though they have an ongoing relationship with the state budget, some lawmakers don’t seem to realize that government programs, once created, seldom go away.
Any school curriculum should offer students insight and enlightenment. With that knowledge, they should emerge from their studies as well-rounded citizens. Patriotism and love of country are desirable, but they shouldn’t be legislated into the lesson plan.
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