The weekend brought the news that conservatives had injected pro-Republican, pro-Christian values into the social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools, in many cases rewriting or retouching history. The right-wingers were also able to block every attempt others made to interject more about Hispanics into the study of Texas and U.S. history and culture.
So what’s more obnoxious?:
To require that the study of the Constitution includes a special focus on the 2nd amendment.
To ask students to question if the founding fathers really wanted to separate church and state (despite the fact that so many of their families originally came to the New World seeking religious freedom).
To refuse to mention that there were some Tejanos dying along side all the white males who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo for the freedom of Texas.
Of course, my vote for most obnoxious change might be for the amending of the expectation that a student can “explain why a free enterprise system of economics developed in the new nation” with the following, “including minimal government intrusion and taxation, and property rights.” I don’t think most legitimate historians would see it that way.
The most amazing part of the story is that not one person on the Texas Board of Education is either an educator or a historian or other scholar. For those who want some details on the Conservative educational putsch in Texas, turn to The New York Times or the Associated Press.
After thinking about it, I’m as amused as I am concerned about these changes. For one thing, I think the fear is overblown that text book publishers will make wholesale changes that will affect (and infect) the children of other states. As the Times article points out immediately after playing the publisher fear card, in a digital age the impact won’t necessarily be felt elsewhere since publishers can now use digital technology to customize text books to different states.
It’s regrettable that the children of one of our largest states will get an inaccurate view of history and be unprepared for the cultural diversity that is rapidly becoming the defining mark of our country as whites slip into minority status.
But children’s history books have always presented a distorted view of the country.
Here are some of the myths that were passed off as gospel truth when I went to public school:
- The U.S. is a special nation (“exceptionalism”) with a manifest destiny to stretch between oceans.
- The U.S. only intervenes in the affairs of other nations for altruistic reasons.
- Atomic power (and by implication the atom bomb) is our friend.
- The Russians want to overrun the United States.
- The old South was a pretty nice place.
- Robert E. Lee was a great general and against slave owning but reluctantly loyal to his state.
(This last myth always pissed me off, even in middle school, because as a young chess player it seemed obvious to me—and previously to George Washington and Mikhail Kutuzov, among others—that if you have the smaller army on your own territory that you play hide-and-go-seek and stretch out the supply lines of the enemy. Instead, Lee attacked. Years later I read the wonderful Lee Considered, in which Alan Nolan shows that Lee the slaveholder was not antislavery, that he endorsed Southern independence and that he lost the war by his repeated offensive thrusts.)
Every generation puts its own the spin on the myths it tries to sell its children. I object to the inaccuracies that conservatives have foisted on the Texas curriculum, but the fact that every school text book of every generation has similar ideological underpinnings makes it less bothersome. I also wonder if the next Texas Board of Education will undo a lot of the damage in a few short years.
Historical revisionism is everywhere, all the time. I remember laughing out loud the first time I went to the History Museum in Pittsburgh and saw an exhibit of the bloody Homestead strike in which all sides acted heroically and there was no bad guy (or bloodshed for that matter). Of course, sponsorship money for the museum came from large corporations, which certainly would not want a pro-union story told, even if that’s what the facts supported.
The real problem is the very fact that publishers toady to the ever-changing political views of school boards instead of always presenting the consensus of the experts in the field.
My own belief is that that truth will set you free. We should not only give children facts that are as untainted as possible, we should also train them to always seek truth and provide them with the intellectual tools to do so. I think children should be taught at an early age to understand the difference between science (and in science, I count history and the other social sciences) and religion, between “this is what I know” and “this is what I believe.” Science is about “how,” religion is about “why.” There is room for both when educating children, as long as we don’t try to pass a belief off as a fact nor teach about one set of beliefs at the expense of all the others.