Those Awful Texas Social Studies Standards. And What About Yours?

You've probably read the
horror stories coming out of Texas about their new social studies
given final approval in a May 21 9-5 vote by the state's board of
education. As the New York Times wrote back in March when the
board gave its preliminary OK, these standards "will put a conservative
stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority
of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment
to a purely secular government, and presenting Republican political
philosophies in a more positive light." The Texas board of education
has rehabilitated Sen. Joe McCarthy, erased mention of the 1848 Seneca
Falls women's rights declaration, and required that the inaugural
address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis be taught alongside
Lincoln's inaugural. And that's just a taste of more than 100 amendments that Republicans have made to the 120-page social studies curriculum

doubt, the victory of conservative ideologues on the Texas board of
education is troubling and worth the attention it's getting. With
4.7 million students, the Texas market is huge and exerts a powerful
influence on the whole textbook industry. As Fritz Fisher, chairman
of the National Council for History Education, told the Washington
, "The books that are altered to fit the standards become
the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they'll
end up in other classrooms."

all this Texas-bashing implies that standards everywhere else are good
and fair and true. In fact, other states' social studies standards
have their own conservative biases and deserve the same critical
that Texas' new standards are receiving. Other states may not celebrate
Jefferson Davis, but neither do they encourage teachers to equip
with the historical background and analytical tools that they'll need
to understand and address today's social and environmental crises.

my own blue state of Oregon. This is no bastion of conservatism. We
have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature; both U.S.
are Democrats, as are four of our five U.S. representatives. But our
social studies standards are profoundly conservative - in big and
little ways. There is no recognition of the social emergency that we
confront: a deeply unequal and unsustainable world, hurtling toward
an ecological crisis without parallel in human history. The standards
portray U.S. society as fundamentally harmonious, with laws designed
to promote fairness and progress. Today's wars don't exist. Nor
does hunger or poverty.

Political Bias

The first social studies
in Oregon's standards requires that 3rd graders begin a
nationalistic curricular journey as they learn to "identify essential
ideas and values expressed in national symbols, heroes, and patriotic
songs of the United States." By the time these 3rd graders
reach high school they'll "understand how laws are developed and
applied to provide order, set limits, protect basic rights, and promote
the common good."

is a well-oiled machine. Eighth graders learn "how supply and
demand respond predictably to changes in economic circumstances."
The economics standards include not a single mention of social class.
Instead, everyone is smashed together as "a consumer, producer, saver,
and investor in a market economy." No owners and workers who might
have conflicting interests-we're all producers.

what about the inequality that so many students can observe on their
way to school? Eighth graders should: "Understand that people's
incomes, in part, reflect choices they have made about education,
skill development, and careers." No mention of the other factors that
determine income: race, gender, social class, nationality, immigration

unions make only one parenthetical appearance. But unions are irrelevant
because in Standardsland, wages and salaries are "usually determined
by the supply and demand for labor"; organizing has nothing to do
with wages.

fact, in most instances, the standards do not ask teachers or texts
to alert students to the power of collective action, of working in
with others, to enhance their economic circumstances-which, in the
real world, is when people's lives actually get better. Instead,
are told to get ahead by making smarter individual choices.

that's the message of the standards in a nutshell: in the United States
we wend our way through society as individual choice-makers. Grade 5:
"Identify and give examples of how individuals can influence the actions
of government." And then in Grade 8: "Identify the responsibilities
of citizens of the United States and understand what an individual can
do to meet these responsibilities." In the standards, individuals
may have social efficacy, but for the most part, only as
not as members of organizations or social movements. Not surprisingly,
the standards' pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap message is never
complicated by concepts like race or racism, which make
no appearance in the standards.

in these times of ecological crisis, the standards include no mention
of human-caused climate change-only a line about how climate change
can affect human activity. The standards encourage students to view
the earth as a playground and a source of wealth. By grade 5, students
will: "Understand how the physical environment presents opportunities
for economic and recreational activity."

Pedagogical Bias

is also a crucial pedagogical bias in social studies standards
that was evident as far back as 1994, with the publication of the first
National Standards for United States History
by the National Center
for History in the Schools. Those standards required coverage of such
an enormous amount of material that teachers could succeed only if they
adopted a stand-and-deliver rush through the ages. This academic
lives on. For example, Oregon's high school World History standards
require students to learn about: how the agricultural revolution
to and accompanied the Industrial Revolution; concepts of imperialism
and nationalism; "how European colonizers interacted with indigenous
populations of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and how the native
populations responded"; Japanese expansion and the consequences for
Japan and Asia during the 20th century; the impact of the
Chinese revolution of 1911 and the cause of China's Communist Revolution
of 1949; causes and consequences of the Russian Revolution of 1917;
causes and consequences of the Mexican Revolution of 1911-1917; causes
of World War I and why the U.S. entered; World War II; the Holocaust;
the Cold War; the causes and impact of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

not joking. In one year. And that's only a sampling of what students
are expected to learn. There's more. Obviously, the only way a
obedient - teacher could handle such a curricular task is to start
talking fast in September and not stop until sometime in June. And rely
on a huge textbook. Sorry kids, no time for role plays, trials,
imaginative writing, small group discussion, short stories, poetry,
or anything else that will slow us down. It's December, and we haven't
even gotten to Mao's Long March.

studies should help students grasp knowledge and tools of analysis so
as to make the world a better place. Social studies should help students

name and explain obstacles to justice, peace, equality, and
Instead, social studies standards like Oregon's are simply about

What Do Your State Standards Say?

is merely my own state's standards. A few years ago, California State
University at Monterey Bay professor Christine Sleeter wrote a fine
article for Rethinking Schools, "Standardizing Imperialism,"
(Fall 2004) analyzing how the California state social studies standards
endorsed a curricular Manifest Destiny that celebrates "explorers"
and "newcomers" who "visit" and "settle." Sleeter found
that "California's curriculum folds students into a 'we' that
is Western, Judeo-Christian, and has a democratic government with a
capitalist market economy. These are juxtaposed to 'them': non-Western,
not Judeo-Christian, and totalitarian (or not free). . . . The standards
have difficulty incorporating as 'we' those whom the United States
had previously colonized."

real Texas standards story is not that the state has become some
outlaw. Yes, Texas has adopted some especially obnoxious standards-e.g.,

celebrating right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly while scrapping United
Farm Worker leader Dolores Huerta. But, as historian Eric Foner pointed
out in a recent article in The Nation, Texas harms its students
not so much by inserting or erasing particular facts or individuals,
but in its overall framework-one that uncritically endorses "free
enterprise" as it "ignores those who have struggled to make this
a fairer, more equal society."

in this respect, the Texas standards more likely resemble than depart
from other states' social studies standards. So by all means, let's
monitor, critique, and organize against Texas' reactionary standards.
But let's also revisit our own state social studies standards and
not just shake a scolding finger at Texas.

Bill Bigelow ( is the Curriculum Editor of
Rethinking Schools magazine. A version of this article will appear
in the summer issue of
Rethinking Schools,

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