Schools across America—both public and private—are embracing the left’s radical ideas at an alarming rate. These ideas have found their way into curriculum, sometimes subtly and other times overtly.
Many parents have had enough. They’re taking action and speaking out—winning seats on school boards, demanding transparency from teachers, and insisting that their kids learn the foundational values that made America the greatest country on earth.
Now, thanks to Hillsdale College, there’s a curriculum that parents can use to ensure their children are getting the education they deserve. Matthew Spalding, Hillsdale’s vice president of Washington operations and dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about the curriculum and why it’s needed now more than ever.
“It’s important for us to realize that while we might think this is merely a debate about different opinions about history,” Spalding says, “this is about debate between history on the one hand—good, accurate history and we can have some disagreements here and there, but generally speaking, there’s a broad consensus about that—and an ideological approach, which is using history merely as a foil to fight current battles.”
Listen to my interview with Spalding on the podcast or read a lightly edited transcript below. You may learn more about the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum on the school’s website and access other K-12 resources there as well.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Matthew Spalding. He is Hillsdale College’s vice president of Washington operations and dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government, as well as an author and editor of several books, including The Heritage Foundation’s Guide to the Constitution. Matt, welcome back to The Heritage Foundation and thank you for joining The Daily Signal.
Matt Spalding: It is great to be with you. Thanks for inviting me. Great to be here.
Bluey: Absolutely. Well, you just brought me a printed copy of “The 1776 Report.” You had the privilege of serving as executive director on the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. I want you to tell us more about this. Of course, President [Joe] Biden, famously one of his first acts was to disband this commission, but walk us back to how this all began and where it’s headed in the future.
Spalding: It’s all a blur, it happened so fast. Last year, I took a leave of absence from Hillsdale College and went over to be the executive director of the 1776 Commission, not knowing quite what to make of that and what would happen with it.
But we had a crazy idea, which turns out to be one of the reasons why I think everyone was surprised on both sides of the aisle about what it did, which is to say, I went over with the agreement that I would have the ability to actually write a report and get that report out.
And so, in a matter of about five or six weeks, we produced a report that was supposed to be the first of perhaps several. It was a two-year commission to advise the president about getting ready for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
I approached it as a scholar, someone who had to write a public document advocating and putting a marker down in this discussion about what is 1776, and what does it mean? It came out on Martin Luther King Day in 2021, and two days later when the new president was inaugurated, one of his first acts within hours of being inaugurated, he abolished the commission. Even before he abolished it, it was taken down immediately from the White House website and erased, if you will—
Bluey: Erased, right.
Spalding: … to which our response was, “Well, you can’t erase our history. It’s still there.” So what I handed Rob here was a printed edition of the report. The report came out and it’s available everywhere. I think Heritage has it on their website, Hillsdale. They made it into much more public of a document by trying to erase it. It actually helped. It brought it more attention.
But one of the criticisms was it had no footnotes, therefore, it wasn’t a serious report. Well, you know me, right? You don’t say that to an academic. So I actually had all my footnotes, and so there’s a book version that Encounter Books published, which includes all the footnotes to mainstream historians, but also some explanatory notes by what we meant by different passages, in showing various support.
I’d mentioned one of the first ones was to credit a Sen. Joseph Biden at the famous Bork hearings of many years ago, arguing about the source of his rights coming from his humanity, not necessarily as being the gift of government or the Supreme Court, which was a quote to our favor, so—
Bluey: That’s right.
Spalding: … I did quote the incoming president of United States.
Bluey: Fantastic. Well, one of the things that was happening, of course, during the time that President [Donald] Trump created this commission, months prior, he gave this really outstanding speech on July Fourth, 2020, at Mount Rushmore. In the months that preceded that and followed that, we had this major debate on issues related to our nation’s founding and race, and a whole host of other things happening in our country.
And we continue to have that discussion today. So thank you for the contributions that you’ve offered. What is in store for the work going forward? I know that Hillsdale recently had reconvened the commission and had a meeting. I mean, do you intend to continue doing this work?
Spalding: One thing, if I could make just a little of a historical note, it’s important for those who are interested in the immediate things going on and the fights people are in at school boards and wherever the current debate is occurring to realize this has been going on for some time. I’ve been working on these things for decades. My time here at The Heritage Foundation and a lot of the writing I did when I was at Heritage were about these questions.
And of course, Hillsdale has been around for a long time. And I’m with Hillsdale College working on this.
So this is not a new debate. It’s a new form of the debate. And I would suggest to you that it’s been radicalized in a way. And it’s important for us to realize that while we might think this is merely a debate about different opinions about history, what it really is is this is about debate between history on the one hand, good, accurate history, and we can have some disagreements here and there, but generally speaking, there’s a broad consensus about that, and an ideological approach, which is using history merely as a foil to fight current battles.
So those ones, that broader perspective and the immediate perspective, I think, is really important to keep in mind, which that then brings me to Hillsdale’s curriculum.
Hillsdale’s been involved in K-12 education for decades. We have a lot of charter schools we write the curriculum for. We have professors that have been writing about these things, so this is nothing new to us. And the college has been involved in this debate about what America means since its own beginning in 1844.
This is really civic education, history education is what it’s all about. So in that sense, it’s not a new thing at all. The new immediate thing, of course, is the particular debate that has occurred in the country … that really was stimulated by the 1776 Commission, that was then abolished in an executive order, trying to turn the country toward equity outcomes, really engage this broader debate about what is going on.
Well, within that context about debate over whether 1776 is good or not, we redoubled our efforts at the college to take a part of a larger and ongoing curriculum project, which will continue and be put out for the public, which is to say it’s free to anybody who wants to use it—homeschoolers, schools, parents, teachers. A particular curriculum on all of civics, all K-12, and American history having to do with the founding and the Civil War, again, for K-12.
So that portion of it is readily available, and we did put that out there to contribute to this ongoing conversation about the importance of our own history.
Bluey: Well, I can tell you, I am really excited about this as a parent of a soon-to-be seventh grader, and soon-to-be fourth grader, because I see it firsthand. I take a very active role in their education, have conversations with them, particularly around what they’re learning in history. Of course, in fourth grade in Virginia, they make the trip to Jamestown and see some of those historical sites.
So one of the questions I have for you is, and one of the things that stood out for me is the fact that you said that this is a curriculum created by teachers for teachers, not by some government bureaucrat or journalist, as famously they’ve done with the 1619 Project. Why was it important for you to take this particular approach and make it accessible for teachers in this way?
Spalding: That’s a great point. One of the things I’ve written about for a long time and pointed out, but also in the commission’s report, I made a point of making this point, which is that the federal government has nothing to do with curriculum. It has no authority. Indeed by law, it’s prevented from shaping curriculum.
And that’s an important thing. I mean, much of the debate we have today is centered around what the federal government is doing here, there, whatever it might be. That points us in a different direction, which is, say, downward.
States are very important. They set standards, but really, it’s school boards, and then it’s teachers in classrooms. The way teaching occurs is in particular classrooms with particular students.
So, the only way to create curriculum, which is, say, real curriculum, not what … I mean, people bandy this word around. But when we say curriculum, we mean lesson plans and questions for students, the topics for discussion, laying it out over the course of weeks and months. That’s a curriculum. Well, that can only be done by people who actually know what they’re doing.
And here, I mean, there are many things Hillsdale—we have opinions about lots of things, but there are things we don’t know about. But one thing we do know about is how to teach people. We’ve got a lot of experience in that.
So yes, a curriculum should be made by teachers, people who know how to teach, how to teach kids in grades K-12, which also means not people in universities and especially not in the federal government, people who know how to teach and know what they’re doing is really important.
And so one of things that bothered me about this whole debate is it’s occurring by a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing, by federal bureaucrats and by professional advocacy groups.
This is what convinced me that we’re really not having a conversation about curriculum and history per se. This is an ideological conversation, a politicized conversation using history and curriculum. Well, they shouldn’t be using students K-12, high school kids, for that purpose. We need to get back to the good old-fashioned notion of teaching them good, accurate, honest history.
Bluey: That’s absolutely right. And for our listeners to know, I mean the 1619 Project, which was something that was envisioned by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times, in addition to being a lengthy magazine article, also had a corresponding curriculum, where they would send copies of the magazine to school districts across the country. So it is happening on the left. We certainly know that.
But you brought up a point about teaching the truth about American history. Why is that so important for our listeners to understand the significance of that, and why do we need to reground ourselves to that point?
Spalding: Right, right. Good point. The mistake that is often made, and it is especially going on right now with, say, the 1619 Project—and this happened before, it’ll continue to happen—is we tend to look at history backward. That is, there’s something we want to argue about right now and we look back in history to merely find what we’re looking for. Well, that gives you a jaded, but at the very least, inaccurate view of history.
The best way to understand history is to try to understand it for itself. What did they think? What did they know? What were they doing?
Now, I also firmly believe that history should be taught warts and all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there are a lot of imperfections and flaws in American history, slavery being the most important. The barbaric practice, which was at the center of the American political debate almost really from the beginning, if not before the beginning, we should teach that too.
But the accurate history of that is not to look backward looking for evil and barbarism and systemic racism. The answer is to study history, because what you see then are a lot of people, some who advocated slavery, and I make my students learn that too, but a lot of others who saw the bad of it, the evil of it, and acted so as to live up to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and bring America over some period of time and through a Civil War to live up to those principles.
And that’s a noble heritage, and something that is great about this country that ought to be taught to our students rather than merely throwing it all out because of the flaws, imperfections, which are admittedly there and ought to be taught too.
Bluey: What is your advice or call to action for our listeners? The curriculum is available on Hillsdale’s website, as you said. It’s free. It’s meant for public school teachers, private school teachers, homeschoolers. But if you are in a setting where you don’t have direct control, say you’re a parent of a public school student, how can they best go about engaging with their teacher, their child’s teacher, or their school to make sure that they’re using Hillsdale’s curriculum?
Spalding: Well, one general thing I would point out, going back to my point about how the federal government really has nothing to do with the curriculum, it’s the state level, it’s the school board, school districts, it’s local schools. One thing is to remind everybody that this is not a lost cause by any means.
Another topic of conversation is where the universities are and where they’re going, but they have virtually nothing to do with this other than coming up with bad ideas.
But the real conversation about curriculum is at these lower levels, and it gets more important as you move down in those lower levels, which means there are lots of opportunities for parents and people interested in their local communities to get involved.
So one call for action is people should just get involved in these curriculum discussions wherever and whenever they can. And I think we’re seeing that, and people should see that as a source of strength in American society.
In terms of what we at Hillsdale have to provide, Hillsdale.edu … you can get the curriculum there. We also have a separate website, which is K12.Hillsdale.edu, which has the curriculum and a lot of other things about K-12 education. And we’re doing more and more on that. At the main website, we have a lot of online videos of courses, most designed for, say, college students or good high school students. And we’re going to do more of that to apply to K-12.
And we have an idea that at some point soon, we want to make available to kids in high school, at other colleges, perhaps the ability to get Hillsdale credits for, say, a civic education requirement. So we’re going to continue doing more and more things.
We’re there as a resource, and there are others, we’ll point to other resources as well. But I think there’s a chink in the armor here of the left, and they’re defensive. This 1619 stuff is not convincing a lot of people. It’s so over the top, it’s clearly ideological. I think it’s reviving a lot of people to the real conversation about civics and why it’s important. And there are resources out there and Hillsdale College means to be one of those resources and make it extremely easy, for free, for parents and teachers to get our material.
Bluey: That’s fantastic. And I must say that having worked with you and having worked with Hillsdale students, either in the form of interns, or who’ve gone on to successful careers, just the quality of the work that you do at Hillsdale is phenomenal. So I highly encourage our listeners to check out the resources that you’ve made available. Fantastic.
I do want to ask you about some of the things that you’re doing here in D.C. You have helped lead a major expansion of what Hillsdale does in Washington, D.C. What opportunities do you provide at the D.C. campus?
Spalding: Sure. So Hillsdale College, which is based in Michigan, a number of years ago got a building in D.C., wanting to expand. And I took over the role of building that operation. We now have a campus here and a growing campus. We have our own students that come back, but we also have public programs. We hold seminars. We have seminars for old friends of the college that come back for college courses. We have public lectures.
And just a year and a half or so ago, we founded a graduate school back here with the purpose of essentially extending Hillsdale’s mission, rating its mission in the nation’s capital to working professionals who want to get a Hillsdale education, but are already out there writing speeches, working at think tanks, working in the administration, and whatever it might be.
So I think what we’re doing in Washington, D.C., it really represents an extension of the college mission. If you think of it as defending civic and religious freedom, and teaching it, well, we want to teach it here because this is the nation’s capital. And we want to shape public thinking about these questions. So it’s an extension of that.
Bluey: And Hillsdale is unique among so many higher education institutions in more ways than one. I mean, first of all, not taking federal money, but can you talk more broadly about the principles that guide a Hillsdale education versus, say, another university?
Spalding: Well, I would say two things are key to the Hillsdale persona, if you will. One you’ve mentioned, which we’re known for, which, we take no government money. And I have to tell you, that frees us from so much, not just the petty, small regulations, but the worry of someone always looking over your shoulder. And we will be the first to extend the hand to anybody else who wants to join us in that pond. We would love to have others come along, because it’s a great place to be. It gives you a lot of independence.
The other thing that’s crucially important is Hillsdale College is very much defined by its beginnings, its mission statement from the very beginning, which defines it—how it’s going to teach, who it’s going to teach. Hillsdale … was founded as an abolitionist college, which is to say, we believe it is wrong to consider someone’s color of their skin as their status as a student. Accepted women from the very beginning.
So it’s very much driven by that original mission, which is to teach these core principles of liberal education, but also it’s intimately tied with the defense of civil and religious liberty in American constitutional history. And so that’s all very important, and we constantly stick to our mission.
So we have the independence by being free from government, but we are constantly honing that original mission and teaching and doing the things we know how to do best, as opposed to merely take as much money we can from the government and going wherever the winds of the day take us.
Bluey: Well, we appreciate that principled position that you do take. And I should also acknowledge, your leader, the president of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn, is a member of The Heritage Foundation board of trustees, just in the interest of full disclosure here.
But Matt, one last question for you. You have devoted so much of your life to the study of history and advancing America’s founding principles. You’re the author of an excellent book, “We Still Hold These Truths.” On that subject—
Spalding: Which I did while I was at Heritage Foundation.
Bluey: That’s right. I forgot to bring a copy to the studio today, but I have it in my office. So, what motivates you? What first motivated you to pursue this? And what still keeps you ticking today?
Spalding: Right. Well, probably two things. One is, first, I had the gift, the blessing, I suppose, of having some wonderful teachers, including one great teacher named Harry Jaffa, who was just this remarkable classroom teacher and a scholar about Abraham Lincoln. And he interested in me in history, and history is very important and you learn a lot from that. And I’ve always been interested in those things. No. 1.
And No. 2, once you get interested in something like that, you realize you want to teach it and spread that. And I think the other thing to remind us to remember is that in a free country, the teaching and education and the shaping of citizens is crucially important to the future. And getting that right is important.
So those things have motivated my initial studies, my work, and now my continuing work as I get older, in terms of teaching others and shaping that, because that’s how we’re going to recover our country, in my opinion.
Bluey: That’s fantastic. Matt, we will leave a link in the show notes and on the transcript for our listeners if they want to get more information about the curriculum and some of Hillsdale’s other offerings. Thank you so much for being a guest on The Daily Signal. We appreciate it.
Spalding: Great to be with you. Anytime.
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