Iowa House bill would mandate long list of U.S. history topics

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

House File 2544 survived last week’s funnel deadline in the Iowa legislature and is eligible for floor debate in the state House of Representatives. If I were a public school social studies teacher in Iowa and this bill were to become law, I would begin to wonder how I could continue to teach what I know about American history and government.

Among other stipulations, House File 2544 sets forth curriculum changes for teaching social studies in Iowa’s public schools. Support for the bill in the House Education Committee came from patriotic legislators who think it’s important that young Iowans learn the history of their country and how it functions under law. I have no doubt of that. I would be disappointed if that were not the case. And I would expect the same from any legislator who votes for the bill if and when it come to the House floor.

That doesn’t change my opinion that the bill can be improved. For one thing, legislators should take note of the sheer volume of original documents that the bill requires students in grades five through twelve to study, and consider how much class time that exercise would consume. The bill would require thirteen documents specifically:

  • The Mayflower Compact
  • Common Sense, the essay published by Thomas Paine in 1776
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777
  • The Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery
  • The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
  • The Northwest Ordinance
  • The U.S. Constitution
  • The Federalist Papers, including Federalist No. 10 and Federalist No 51
  • Washington’s Farewell Address
  • relevant excerpts from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • a transcript of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate
  • and The Emancipation Proclamation.

Then, just in case something was overlooked, the bill mentions “The writings of the founding fathers.” Remember, these requirements would begin for fifth graders.

I would think a more practical approach for the bill generally would be to create recommendations for teachers about curriculum materials rather than requirements.

Another area of concern: the history requirement in the bill includes western civilization only, not world civilization. Especially in the modern era, it is impossible to understand America’s story without at least a rudimentary awareness of non-western traditions.

A third concern: the history requirement is silent about a number of topics that have played a huge role in America’s past, including immigration, labor unions, Jim Crow laws, national parks and conservation, and the role and treatment of native Americans, to name just a few. If I were a history teacher, I would read the bill closely to see if there are specific requirements into which I could shoehorn material about such momentous, but omitted, historical threads.

Slavery, for instance, could be reviewed under the bill’s requirement for teaching about the Civil War, but “America’s original sin,” as it’s been called, existed here for nearly 250 years prior to the 1860s. It’s not acceptable to omit a requirement about the role played in our history by America’s black slaves, who numbered some four million when the Civil War broke out. Nor could such a requirement be confused with the curriculum-prohibited “critical race theory,” although some conservatives would no doubt try to do so.

Finally, the last few lines of House File 2544 give the game away. They lay down the bill’s requirements for civics instruction for public high school students in Iowa. Six U.S. Supreme Court cases would be mandatory, and five of those are understandable: Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education.

I can certainly agree that those five cases have had a huge impact on U.S. jurisprudence and America’s way of life, and high school students need to know about them.

Then there’s the sixth requirement: Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining and Milling Company v. Pennsylvania.

Say what?

I suspect that the Pembina case, decided in 1888, remains a mystery even to most of my attorney and legislative friends.

I tried to research the case, but even then it was difficult to uncover what it meant, let alone why Iowa high school students should have to learn about it.

Finally, I developed a hypothesis: the Pembina case appears to be among the first in American history in which a Supreme Court justice declared corporations to be people for purposes of constitutional law.

Associate Justice Stephen Field (not the court’s majority opinion) expressed that view. The statement was irrelevant to the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, which involved a suit brought by a Colorado mining company against a Pennsylvania law which favored in-state companies over those from other states.

But the Pembina case was not even the first in which the high court declared corporations to be treated like people in terms of the application of the Constitution. That honor goes to Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company in 1886, with Chief Justice Morrison Waite making the declaration.

So why youngsters have to learn about Pembina is a puzzler to me. Over the years, though, the high court gradually embraced and cemented the equation of corporations with actual humans, and today that concept empowers corporations to do all kinds of things once reserved just to individuals, and likewise endows corporations with protections once enjoyed just by actual human beings.

No wonder the conservative-dominated Iowa legislature might want students to place Pembina on a par in importance with decisions about racial equality. I would really like to know which Iowan drafted House File 2544, if indeed it was an Iowan.

Editor’s note from Laura Belin, who had never heard of Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining and Milling Company v. Pennsylvania despite having a strong interest in U.S. Supreme Court history:

Republican State Representatives Brooke Boden and Steve Holt, who served on the subcommittee that approved House File 2544, did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s questions about the bill language. Nor did several other GOP cosponsors of the bill, including House Education Committee chair Skyler Wheeler and House Speaker Pat Grassley.

However, Democratic State Representative Heather Matson told Bleeding Heartland that during the subcommittee meeting, when she asked about the origin of the list of mandatory topics, Boden mentioned the Civics Alliance and the National Association of Scholars.

UPDATE from Laura Belin: The Iowa House approved House File 2544 on February 28, after amending the bill to add a provision requiring schools to teach students about the Holocaust. Members then debated the bill for hours, with numbers lawmakers speaking for or against the concept. House File 2544 passed by 58 votes to 37, with Republicans Chad Ingels, Tom Moore, and Brent Siegrist joining every Democrat present to vote against it.

Top photo: Teacher and students in classroom at Merrill middle school in Des Moines on October 14, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Des Moines Public Schools.

About the Author(s)

Rick Morain

  • Good catch Laura

    From Wikipedia, “The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is an American 501(c)(3) non-profit politically conservative education advocacy organization.[2][3] It advocates against multiculturalism, diversity policies, and against courses focused on race and gender issues.”

    History has often been used to indoctrinate minds and unite nations around a set of shared beliefs.

  • oh don't worry these good patriotic folks

    have slavery covered:

    Endorsement of Florida’s New 2023 African American History Strand

    Looks like DeSantis was right about one thing Iowa is full on being ruled by his fellow neo-Confederates welcome to the Lost Cause people.

  • By coincidence, this afternoon I saw an excellent history documentary on IPBS, per below...

    …and some version of it, however short, should be part of what Iowa students learn in history classes by the time they graduate from the Iowa K-12 system.


    “SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME ‘resets’ our national clock with a singular astonishing fact: Slavery in America didn’t end 150 years ago, with Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the film illuminates how in the years following the Civil War, insidious new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, persisting until the onset of World War II.”

  • I think NC had chain-gangs into the 70's

    and then there is

  • National Academy of Scholars

    Last Sunday’s Register had an editorial in favor the civics bill written by David Randall, director of research at the National Association of Scholars, and John Hendrickson, policy director at Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation. Two groups that are well funded…