Twisting History in Texas

The changes to the social studies curriculum recently approved by the
conservative-dominated Texas Board of Education have attracted attention
mainly because of how they may affect textbooks used in other states.
Since Texas certifies texts centrally rather than by individual school
districts, publishers have a strong incentive to alter their books to
conform to its standards so as to reach the huge Texas market. Where was
Lee Harvey Oswald, after all, when he shot John F. Kennedy? In the Texas
School Book Depository--a tall Dallas building filled with textbooks.

Most comment on the content of the new standards has focused on the
mandate that high school students learn about leading conservative
figures and institutions of the 1980s and '90s, specifically Phyllis
Schlafly, the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, the Contract With
America and the NRA. In fact, there is nothing wrong with teaching about
modern conservatism, a key force in recent American history. My own
textbook has a chapter called "The Triumph of Conservatism" and
discusses most of the individuals and groups mentioned above.

More interesting is what the new standards tell us about conservatives'
overall vision of American history and society and how they hope to
instill that vision in the young. The standards run from kindergarten
through high school, and certain themes obsessively recur. Judging from
the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to
come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women
who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of
the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not
think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality;
other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal
treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions;
federal economic regulation; or foreigners.

Here are a few examples. The board has removed mention of the
Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention, the letters of John and
Abigail Adams and suffrage advocate Carrie Chapman Catt. As examples of
"good citizenship" for third graders, it deleted Harriet Tubman and
included Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Helen Keller (the
board seems to have slipped up here--Keller was a committed socialist).
The role of religion--but not the separation of church and
state--receives emphasis throughout. For example, religious revivals are
now listed as one of the twelve major "events and eras" from colonial
days to 1877.

The changes seek to reduce or elide discussion of slavery, mentioned
mainly for its "impact" on different regions and the coming of the Civil
War. A reference to the Atlantic slave trade is dropped in favor of
"Triangular trade." Jefferson Davis's inaugural address as president of
the Confederacy will now be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's
speeches.

In grade one, Veterans Day replaces Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the
list of holidays students should be familiar with. (Later, "building a
military" has been added as one of two results of the Revolution--the
other being the creation of the United States--an odd inclusion, given
the founders' fear of a standing army.) The Double-V Campaign during
World War II (blacks' demand that victory over the Axis powers be
accompanied by victory over segregation at home) has been omitted from
the high school curriculum. Japanese-American internment is now
juxtaposed with "the regulation of some foreign nationals," ignoring the
fact that while a few Germans and Italians were imprisoned as enemy
aliens, the vast majority of people of Japanese ancestry who were
interned were US citizens.

Students in several grades will be required to understand the "benefits"
(but none of the drawbacks) of capitalism. The economic system, however,
dares not speak its name--it is referred to throughout as "free
enterprise." Labor unions are conspicuous by their absence. Mankind's
impact on the environment is apparently entirely benign--the curriculum
mentions dams for flood control and the benefits of transportation
infrastructure but none of the problems arising from the exploitation of
nature. Lest anyone think that Americans should not fall below a
rudimentary standard of living, the kindergarten curriculum deletes
food, shelter and clothing from its list of "basic human needs."

Americans, the board seems to suggest, do not need to take much notice
of the rest of the world, or of noncitizens in this country.
Kindergartners no longer have to learn about "people" who have
contributed to American life, only about "patriots and good citizens."
High school students must evaluate the pros and cons of US participation
in "international organizations and treaties." In an original twist,
third grade geography students no longer have to be able to identify on
a map the Amazon, the Himalayas or (as if it were in another country)
Washington, DC.

Clearly, the Texas Board of Education seeks to inculcate children with a
history that celebrates the achievements of our past while ignoring its
shortcomings, and that largely ignores those who have struggled to make
this a fairer, more equal society. I have lectured on a number of
occasions to Texas precollege teachers and have found them as competent,
dedicated and open-minded as the best teachers anywhere. But if they are
required to adhere to the revised curriculum, the students of our second
most populous state will emerge ill prepared for life in Texas, America
and the world in the twenty-first century.