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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 09/16/2010

Are Texas's social studies standards really so bad?

By Valerie Strauss

*Updated with correction at bottom

Texas has completed its adoption of new social standards, a controversial process that made national news when religious conservative members of the Board of Education made decisions that critics said skewed history. I was one of those who criticized the changes on The Sheet, more than once, and yesterday, I questioned why the board was just now considering a new rule (not a standard) about how Islam is taught to students. In this post, Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council, takes a different view. The council is an independent research organization that reviews history textbooks and other educational materials.

By Gilbert T. Sewall
With the official adoption of new social studies standards last month, Texas ends a year-long controversy over history standards and textbooks.

After months of stunning national opposition, in the spring, the Republican majority on the Texas State Board of Education pushed through a large number of revisions to the state’s social studies curriculum. The board majority may deserve some limited praise for trying to adjust excesses of multicultural revisionism and re-center U.S. history. But it shouldn’t expect getting it very soon.

After the final vote in May, the Guardian newspaper in Britain had a headline that shouted: “Texas school board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns. US Christian conservatives drop references to slave trade and sideline Thomas Jefferson who backed church-state separation.

It is hard to pack more hysteria and misinformation into a single headline.

Fearful of contamination, the California legislature considered a bill that forbids Texas curriculum content to appear in the state’s textbooks. It called the Texas standards “a sharp departure from widely accepted historical teachings.”

Whatever the fine points and actual language, millions of Americans think Christian extremists on the Texas state school board have completed a radical history overhaul destined to corrupt textbooks nationwide. If it is a conservative victory, it is a Pyrrhic victory with a great cost to the Texas state board and social studies.

What went wrong? What are “widely accepted historical teachings” in 2010?

For two decades, multicultural revisionists have tried to supplant an older view of Americans as religious dissenters, pioneers and immigrants intent on a making a freer and better life, a force for good in the world, a nation that regulated reform and advanced civil rights to all.

When American history is taught, parents often discover to their dismay, it is a setting for power struggles between groups, or as an unjust and patriarchal society whose rapacity -- from Jamestown to Vietnam -- needs exposure and explication. At the extremes, Christopher Columbus is an invader. Dolores Huerta is an icon. Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are saints. Thomas Jefferson is recast as a slaveholder and miscegenate. End of story.

When conservative state board members spotted biases in social studies standards prepared by panels at the Texas Education Agency, they tried to set things right, their way. During the 2009 science adoption, they attempted to strong-arm creationism into Texas science standards. Board President Don McLeroy, a man of few doubts, said that the world was 10,000 years old and insisted textbook publishers acknowledge this fact. His demands and bluster made him no friends, and intra-board animosity grew from then on.

When it comes to textbooks, Texas is always a significant state. The way it adopts and pays for them makes educational publishers super-attentive to its content standards and state board’s preferences. The Association of American Publishers has tried to convince journalists that Texas book adoptions don’t matter as much as they used to, but the economics of selling textbooks nationally at a profit argue otherwise.

When the social studies standards review started up, McLeroy’s religious tribunes did not help.

“We’re in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it,” said Rev. Peter Marshall, a board-appointed reviewer.

Board fighting began over figures that should be included or excluded in the standards as examples. Anne Hutchinson, Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall were early bones of contention. More contemporary figures and items -- Allen Ginsberg, Phyllis Schlafly, Dolores Huerta, Newt Gingrich and Contract with America -- stirred angry interchanges.

Texas activists were looking for trouble. Kathy Miller at the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal coalition that has the ear of the mainstream media, invented the talking point that the right wing had stricken Thomas Jefferson from the document. (The taking him out of the textbooks red herring made it all the way to the New York Times and Washington Post.)

With headlines like “Texas Textbook Massacre: Ultraconservatives Approve Radical Changes to State Education Curriculum,” the Huffington Post ramped up the leftist rhetoric, countered by a Fox News-led effort to defend the standards and make heroes of the Texas board. But the belligerent “don’t mess with Texas” attitude from the right only made matters worse, giving ammunition to multiculturalists.

Board president McLeroy had a thin grasp of vexing interpretive issues that bedevil thoughtful historians. He knew better. He was out of his league on many items, but didn’t seem to care.

He was enjoying his media moment too much. His loyalty tests and votes offended state experts who might have been his allies. When much of the press went overboard and tried to smear him as a rural cretin, it only strengthened his resolve. (McLeroy was defeated in a March 2010 Republican primary but continued to air his demands to the end.)

Leftists on the board tried to use the hearings to their political advantage. “They are re-writing history,” fumed Mary Helen Berlanga, a longtime board member and Hispanic activist. She told The New York Times, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.” Berlanga claimed the standards were not “inclusive.” They minimized Latino history and contributions of ethnic minorities, she said, a false charge echoed in the press right until the end.

The truth is, in the final version, the board majority made many adjustments or retractions to meet criticisms. The one world history item that originally dropped Jefferson restored him. Dolores Huerta stayed. Latino contributions to Texas history remain largely intact. Diversity was alive and well.

No matter. The left registered new objections and discovered new outrages. Some claimed that the words “slave” and “slavery” had been struck from the standards. Not true, ridiculous in fact, but as the race card was played with consummate cynicism, millions of Americans heard otherwise.

In a perfect world calm observers and balanced historians would have stepped in long before and pointed to the histories of Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Commager, Daniel Boorstin, or John Garraty. But we as a nation have abandoned this kind of history writing. McLeroy is right on one point: most history departments and associations tilted far to the left decades ago.

Diversity advocates like Mary Helen Berlanga and Kathy Miller, no matter what concessions are made, can never get enough. They insist on remaking history their way, victim by victim. When they don’t get their way, to create shock, they often exaggerate, accusing the Christian Right of heinous offenses, with most reporters uncritical of their complaints. They have had carte blanche in curriculum reform for decades, and they resent any challenge to their ruling ideas.

If what has happened in Texas is any indicator, all future efforts to check diversity themes in social studies will be tagged “a sharp departure from widely accepted historical teachings.”

Multicultural revisionists will call their adversaries racists, bigots, nativists, and other ugly names, trying to suspend all critical examination. Whether or not these epithets will continue to work politically is an open question.

The standards take a generous view of Christianity in the American Founding. The final compromise language is: “Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed it free exercise by saying that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ and compare and contrast this to the phrase ‘separation of church and state.’” Not as alarming as you might think from reading news reports.

To stress religion as a nation-building force, the standards reiterate “Creator” from the Declaration of Independence. They highlight American “exceptionalism,” a concept about which political philosophers are in wide disagreement. In U.S. history the standards replace “imperialism” with “expansionism,” reserving the term for other nations.

Country and western or hip-hop? The board majority favored the former, inviting charges of racism from the race-obsessed left. Neither side rightly wondered if the entire subject belonged outside social studies. The final item was unsatisfactory: “describe both the positive and negative impacts of significant examples of cultural movements in art, music, and literature such as Tin Pan Alley, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, rock and roll, the Chicano Mural Movement, and country and western music on American society.”

No doubt a few changes -- out of thousands of items -- were pointed. Republicans tried to use state power to spin historical accounts as they saw them, exactly as multiculturalists have done since the 1990s. Claims of a radical assault on history are false.

The final Texas standards are for the most part conventional and inclusive. A few items betray a “conservative” viewpoint. They do not warrant the attention and defamation they have received nor the hysteria they have generated. Texas is not re-writing textbooks. Little has changed. The new standards on the whole conform to what’salready in textbooks, and the impact on history textbooks nationwide will be very limited.

These are the facts, but at this point few people are listening.


An earlier version of this post said that two groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, had claimed that the words "slave" and "slavery" were removed from the Texas social studies standards. That was incorrect. Here's a statement from the ACLU:

"Mr. Sewall is incorrect in his assertion that the ACLU claimed that the terms "slave" and "slavery" were struck from the Texas social studies curriculum standards. However, he is correct in that the ACLU has raised serious concerns about recent revisions made to the Texas social studies curriculum standards as they show evidence of placing ideology over scholarship, potentially compromising academic standards. Curriculum standards should be set by qualified experts and historians, not politicians trying to advance their own political agendas. We continue to stand by our assertion that a public school curriculum should promote academic integrity, not ideological agendas."

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 16, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  rewriting history, texas rewrites history, texas social studies standards, texas standards  
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You claim thes are the facts, yet fail to acknowledge this board has no expertise in history or science. They outraged the Historical and science communities with ill regard to scholars who dedicated a lifetime of peer review and credible research. Sure the media jumped on this and spun whatever they can, and it might be a difficult choice on deciding what should be included without “offending” certain ethnic groups.

The problem was the fact that the 15 appointed members (2:1 Republican) had their own agenda and attempted to strong arm the major publishing companies into rewriting, or to say the least, highlighting parts of history that favors their belief system contrary to validated standards. They discarded any input from the experts, and tried to force conservative ideas into what would be published. That is wrong.

Plus, since Texas is one of the largest markets for text book publishers, they carry most weight in deciding what will be placed in textbooks (Last I checked approximately $800M due in 2011), and the companies will tool their product to conform to Texas standards. This forces other states to use the same books based on Texas board decisions.

In my opinion, Politicians and appointees should not tamper with educational matters. Scholars and peer review should dictate history and science based on factual evidence not belief systems. Students who will be exposed to these new standards will be in shock when they enter a University system and find out they have been duped. Welcome to the real world.

Posted by: shellshocked50 | September 16, 2010 6:25 AM | Report abuse

All history will be twisted and construed to whomever's standards are involved. I was educated in liberal California and was surprised to hear that slave masters weren't all bulgey-eyd dungeon keepers and not all, in fact very few, Native American tribes were quasi-hippie nomads who loved nature and peace.

The Turks teach their students in primary school that Armenians were criminals and thieves and would murder Turks in mass, and, finally, that no genocide occurred, yet we are screaming and crying over something Jefferson scribbled in a letter to a Baptist pastor.

This is simply another battle in the culture wars. Another writer mentioned students being "surprised" at the university, I was only surprised at all the events my leftist California education misconstrued.

In any case, if I wanted objective history without any annotation, the American professor is the last person I would go to. As a history major, almost all my upper-division courses have been an interpretative history lecture followed by a text book filled with liberal commentary.

I think Texas is taking a realistic step into late 18th century America, where religion still mattered, where religion still determined Americans' decisions, as it should (or else why follow it?).

I will end by asking a few questions. How do you suppose British teachers and English historians portray the Revolution? How do they tell the story? Would it suprise anyone that they emphasize the ideology coming out of English thought and give little or no credence to American orginality?

Would it surprise anyone that the Arab countries teach a history of Israel completely different from our own?

Did anyone stop to consider there is no single "way" to teach history, and basically any attempt to prove otherwise has never come to fruition?

How do you know what and how to teach? Do liberals and leftists have an all-inclusive agenda untainted by some ethical or moral motivation? Does your liberal history textbook look like Howard Zinn wrote it?

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Posted by: shankartripathi85 | September 16, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

It's true that the changes to the curriculum have been overstated. However, I think the article misses a couple of critical points. First, the SBOE tried to to tinker with the recommendation of experts for political reasons. The fact that they had to abandon some of their agenda when they got caught shouldn't get them off the hook. More importantly, the SBOE continued the expansion of the already detailed curriculum standards that were already cumbersome. The SBOE's contribution to the bureaucracy of public schools is a major failure and their political motivations are only part of the story.

Posted by: kcollier | September 16, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Interesting article and comment. Our daughter and her husband recently moved to DC and traveled home (IN) for a wedding via the train. Sitting behind them was another young couple visiting Chicago for a wedding. While eating dinner with the couple and discussing the availability of trains, the women mentioned that "Well, they used to have an underground railroad in the old days." Our stunned daughter finally said, "You know that wasn't a REAL railroad-right?" The husband laughed and said, "They don't teach history in Texas!" Wow, that was eye-opening our history buff daughter who couldn't wait to live in DC after graduation from Purdue last December! True, but sad and Texas must change if that is how new graduates speak about common historical facts. Keep writing.

Posted by: siloman5758 | September 17, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Sewall is incorrect in his assertion that the ACLU claimed that the terms "slave" and "slavery" were struck from the Texas social studies curriculum standards. However, he is correct in that the ACLU has raised serious concerns about recent revisions made to the Texas social studies curriculum standards as they show evidence of placing ideology over scholarship, potentially compromising academic standards. Curriculum standards should be set by qualified experts and historians, not politicians trying to advance their own political agendas. We continue to stand by our assertion that a public school curriculum should promote academic integrity, not ideological agendas.

Posted by: ACLUMedia | September 17, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Sewall claims that the Texas Freedom Network “invented the talking point that the right wing had stricken Thomas Jefferson from the document.” Simply not true. As we repeatedly made clear, the State Board of Education’s social conservatives demanded revising the specific world history course requirement that students learn how Enlightenment thinkers influenced political revolutions after 1750. They deleted Jefferson and the reference to the Enlightenment altogether from that requirement and inserted two theologians, John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, in what became an almost meaningless requirement that students “explain the political philosophies” of each individual listed. They returned Jefferson (but not the Enlightenment) to the standard only after being criticized for dropping him in the first place.

Mr. Sewall also claims that groups like the NAACP cynically played the race card. Yet it was board member Don McLeroy who declared during one meeting that women and minorities should thank the majority (white men) for their rights and tried to portray the successes of the civil rights movement as essentially a result of Republican efforts.

One of Mr. Sewall’s most troubling claims is that the board’s treatment of the principle of separation of church and state isn’t alarming. We beg to differ. The board rejected a proposed standard that would have required students to learn how the Founders protected religious freedom by barring government from promoting one religion over all others. It then approved an alternative that suggests the First Amendment doesn’t, in fact, protect separation of church and state – contradicting established constitutional law and repeated rulings by the Supreme Court.

The political biases of board members were evident in many other ways. For example, conservatives demanded references to “capitalism” be changed to “free enterprise” because, as one board member claimed, “capitalism” is a negative word used by “liberal academics.” Dolores Huerta was, despite Mr. Sewall’s claim to the contrary, dropped from the third-grade standards precisely because conservatives said she was a socialist. And conservatives refused to include Margaret Sanger in the standards because, they said, the board couldn’t guarantee that textbooks would talk about her beliefs on eugenics rather than her efforts to promote reproductive health and rights for women.

More than 1,200 historians from across the country signed a letter begging the state board to let scholars review the revisions before a final vote on the standards. The board's lawyers, businesspeople, political activists and dentist refused to do so. Ultimately, it is the state board’s contempt for the expertise of scholars and teachers that is the real story behind the education debate in Texas, not Mr. Sewall’s disingenuous claims about “multicultural revisionism” and “leftist rhetoric.”

Posted by: DanTFN | September 17, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

siloman578, the idea that the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad underground actually appeared in an article in the Dayton Daily News. (I forget if the reporter was local or not or what the context was.)

The SBOE's efforts are bad enough, but we should remember that they would not be quite so damaging if we could be sure that high school history teachers had studied any more history than is in the textbook. In many states, there is no requirement that teachers have any college work in the subject they are teaching, and with an undergraduate degree in history, I have heard all too often, "What did you study? All you have to do to teach history is assign the questions at the end of the chapter." As a substitute, I can tell the moment I step into the room what class normally meets there, since most rooms are full of literature posters, posters about the importance of math, periodic tables, etc. Except for high school social studies classrooms--in several different schools, the social studies teachers, at least the males, have filled the room with sports trophies, news articles about the team, posters of athletes extolling hard work or fair play, professional team pennants, and so on. In the teacher's lounge, even young teachers recall history classes filled with game films or occupied by study periods so the coach had time to talk with team members. Apparently the practice of hiring coaches or those who want to be primarily coaches and assigning them a history class has not died out.

Years ago, I read of a school that attempted to do away with textbooks in many subjects, replacing them with lectures and supplemental reading, much as many college classes use. The attempt had to be abandoned when school officials discovered that most of the teachers had insufficient knowledge of the subject to prepare a lecture or suggest supplemental reading.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 17, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

It is with enormous sadness that we announce the sudden death of our father, the Reverend Peter J. Marshall, on Wednesday, September 8, 2010, in Orleans, Massachusetts. He was 70 years old.

Born on January 21, 1940, Peter John Marshall was the son of the Scottish minister, Dr. Peter Marshall, who became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, in 1937 and was appointed twice as Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, serving from January 1947 until his sudden death at the age of 46.

Dad's mother, Catherine Marshall, wrote the best-selling biography of her husband entitled A Man Called Peter. This book was later made into an Oscar-nominated film of the same title (1955) in which dad was portrayed as a young child by the actor Billy Chapin. Our grandmother went on to write over 20 books, including many editions of her husband's sermons, several inspirational books, and the best-selling novel Christy. A graduate of Mount Hermon School in Northfield, MA, our father attended Yale University where he sang in the Yale Glee Club and earned a bachelor's degree in history. He then entered Princeton Theological Seminary from which he was graduated in 1964 and ordained in 1965 as a minister of the Presbyterian Church, USA. For the next twelve years, he served pastorates in West Hartford, CT, and East Dennis, MA. Since 1977, he had devoted himself to a nationwide ministry of preaching, teaching and writing. He co-authored three best-selling books—The Light and The Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.

Rev. Marshall is survived by his children, Mary Elizabeth Marshall, Peter Jonathan Marshall, and David Christopher Marshall, two step-brothers, Chester LeSourd of Chattanooga, TN, and Jeffrey LeSourd of Lincoln, VA, a step-sister, Linda LeSourd Lader of Washington, DC, and Charleston, SC, and three grandchildren. Our mother, Edith Marshall Roberts, also survives.

Posted by: choralsociety | September 17, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

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