Are Texas's social studies standards really so bad?
*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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| 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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