Kersten: Extremist ideology has already hijacked Minnesota’s social studies classes

How did biased, ideologically freighted concepts of this kind become a centerpiece of what Minnesota students will soon learn in their social studies classrooms?

social studies
Minnesota has sleepwalked into an extremist hijacking of our public schools, Center of the American Experiment's Katherine Kersten writes. (Shutterstock)

On Oct. 7, 2023, the world witnessed Hamas’ brutal invasion of Israel — the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. In the days that followed, loud voices attempted to excuse or justify this heinous act, both in Minnesota and elsewhere.

They did so using the rhetoric of an extremist ideology that views historical tensions and conflicts through a one-dimensional, politicized lens. This ideology reduces the complex history of Israel and Palestine to a caricature, and portrays Israel as an illegitimate state — an oppressive “colonizer” — whose victims are entitled to forcibly throw off their oppressor. The vocabulary used to justify this violence includes terms and concepts such as “decolonization,” “settler-colonialism,” “dispossession” and “resistance.”

Minnesotans will likely be surprised and disturbed to learn that our state’s new K-12 social studies standards are littered with these buzzwords, which are at the heart of “decolonization” ideology.

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has portrayed the standards — which were formally adopted in January 2024 after a four-year process — as unifying. In reality, they will divide our young people by group identity, teach them to view social life as a zero-sum power struggle between oppressors (bad) and victims (good), and convert public schools into boot camps for political activism.

In the new standards, the connection between “decolonization” ideology and Israel is made explicit in the examples that, according to MDE, “clarify the meaning” of the grade-level benchmarks. MDE has not made these examples public, indicating it will provide them separately to explain how schools should implement the standards. However, Center of the American Experiment obtained the examples, which appeared in MDE’s September 2021 working draft, through a public data request.

In connection with one standard, for instance, students are instructed to “describe how individuals and communities have fought” for “liberation against systemic and coordinated exercises of power.” In another, they must “analyze the impact of colonialism” and in a third, they must “analyze dominant and non-dominant narratives.” In all three cases, Israel-Palestine is highlighted as an example. Likewise, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is held up as an immigrant who has made “contributions” to “political ideas.”

How did biased, ideologically freighted concepts of this kind — which appear designed to enlist young people behind a political agenda — become a centerpiece of what Minnesota students will soon learn in their social studies classrooms?

To answer, we must investigate who wrote the new standards and why. A political advocacy organization called “Education for Liberation Minnesota” and its offshoot, the Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition (MESC), played a central role in drafting the standards. EdLib MN describes its mission as being “a force” in Minnesota to “contend with the status quo of colonial education that prioritizes Eurocentric curricula.” On its website, EdLib MN states that in 2020, “the decision was made to pack” the MDE-appointed social studies revision committee with its members and allies, who “authored” the new ethnic studies standards.

EdLib MN created MESC in 2019 to spearhead a campaign to inject politicized, or “liberated,” ethnic studies into K-12 classrooms across Minnesota. This campaign had two objectives: to rewrite the state’s social studies standards and to push a comprehensive ethnic studies bill through the Minnesota Legislature, according to EdLib MN’s website.

At “Ethnic Studies Day at the Capitol” in February 2023, MESC and EdLib MN portrayed their brand of ethnic studies as “an unequaled opportunity to bridge the ethnic and cultural divide” in our state’s classrooms. But out of the public eye, Brian Lozenski — a leader of both organizations — forthrightly acknowledged ethnic studies’ political agenda and its deep-seated anti-Israel animus.

“Ethnic Studies explores the colonial roots of the dispossession of Palestinian land and the creation of Zionism,” wrote Lozenski in 2022 in a Convergence magazine article he co-authored with pro-Palestinian activists like Lara Kiswani, who directs the extremist California-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center. “Given the devastating impact of Israeli colonialism,” “studying Israeli settler colonialism in comparison to U.S. settler colonialism” is “at the heart of the discipline of Ethnic Studies.”

“But even the suggestion that Palestine might be mentioned is enough to bring forth well-funded organized attacks from pro-Israeli lobby groups,” the authors continued. They denounced, by name, “Islamophobic and Zionist organizations” like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

At the State Capitol, EdLib MN and MESC lined up behind HF 1502, the “Ethnic Studies for All” bill, whose motives were equally suspect. In May 2023, the bill’s provisions were largely folded into the final education omnibus bill and signed into law.

Brian Lozenski served as chief testifier for HF 1502. Its sponsor was Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, whom the Twin Cities-Democratic Socialists of America endorsed in 2022. This party’s sympathies are well known. On Oct. 9, 2023, its leaders issued a statement blaming the Hamas invasion on Israel, condemning Israel’s alleged “settler-colonial violence and dispossession,” and vowing to “fight border fascism wherever it rears its hideous head.”

Liberated ethnic studies has now successfully invaded our public schools via two fronts — MDE’s new K-12 social studies standards and the 2023 omnibus legislation, which requires that ethnic studies ideology be embedded in every academic subject and grade.

The new law also officially entrenched MESC and EdLib MN as powerful players in our state’s public education arena. The law created a permanent ethnic studies working group at MDE and charged it with designing a statewide ethnic studies framework, recommending teacher training and developing instructional resources. The group must be chosen “with input from the Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition.” Its members — whom MDE announced on April 1 — include Brian Lozenski.

In the future, Minnesota students will be pressured to engage in political activism to demonstrate mastery of the social studies standards. MDE’s “Statement of Need and Reasonableness” for the standards, issued in 2023, makes this clear.

“Students should use their learning in Social Studies as a launching pad for action,” the statement declares. Among MDE’s recommended actions for students is formulating “potential resolutions of present and controversial global problems.”

It is disturbing, then, to learn that on Oct. 17, 2023, EdLib MN issued a public call to students to join a “Student Walkout for Gaza,” in the form of a retweet from the national Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies, of which both MESC and EdLib MN are members.

EdLib MN’s message included a link to an organizing tool kit for students from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, whose director co-authored Brian Lozenski’s Convergence article. The tool kit laid out a step-by-step guide, along with timetables, media talking points, and templates for protest signs and chants. One sign reads, “Decolonize Palestine,” and features a masked woman hurling a rock, with a burning police car behind it.

Students at Edina High School took just such action on Oct. 25, walking out of school and chanting “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” — widely understood as a call to eliminate Israel.

Minnesotans should be aware that Israel isn’t the only nation in the cross hairs of decolonization ideology. The new social studies standards also portray the U.S. as a suspect “colonial” power that students should “resist.”

Minnesota has sleepwalked into an extremist hijacking of our public schools.

Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune on April 7, 2024.


Katherine Kersten

Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She served as a Metro columnist for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) from 2005 to 2008 and as an opinion columnist for the paper for 15 years between 1996 and 2013. She was a founding director of the Center and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998.