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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 04/ 7/2010

Texas did not really rewrite history--Sewall

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council, an independent research organization that reviews history textbooks and other educational materials.

By Gilbert T. Sewall
In the last few weeks many Americans have learned that Christian conservatives on the Texas state school board are rewriting the social studies curriculum, an act that will force kids to learn a distorted view of the country’s past.

The fallout, they hear, will include a radical overhaul of the nation’s history textbooks.

The problem is, this conventional view is not really true.

In March, at hearings in Austin to review history textbook standards, Christian conservatives and Latino multiculturalists clashed, both claiming to be agents of reform.

The outcome was Texas political theater, conducted by partisans on the right and left, not by equitable historians. The hearings were closely watched by the nation, and by all accounts the results were a victory for conservatives.

The conservative board majority got most of the amendments it wanted, and the final standards will be approved in May. In most cases the proposed changes amounted to a name here or some shading there, but this has been enough to incense and inflame its adversaries.

As the nation’s leading textbook funder, Texas has unique force on educational publishers. What the elected Texas state board determines to be content standards influences history textbooks nationwide.

The hearings and their aftermath showcase a profound gulf over public interpretation of history in schools. It also indicates that any deviation from multicultural convention will provoke violent reaction and criticism.

“They are rewriting history,” charged Mary Beth Berlanga, a longtime Texas 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’s allies said the textbook amendments passed by the board reflect “racist ideology” and spread “capitalist propaganda.” A California advocacy group echoed, “The Board went so far as to remove Thomas Jefferson from the textbook completely. Jefferson Davis is placed on equal footing with Abraham Lincoln.”

None of this is fact, but many serious people are reading that it is.

The drawn-out Texas battle was staged mainly around the deletion or inclusion of a few symbolic figures. Anne Hutchinson, Stephen Austin, Cesar Chavez, and Thurgood Marshall were items of contention.

At one point, fights to include or omit Phyllis Schlafly, nemesis of the
Equal Rights Amendment, and Dolores Huerta, a radical labor organizer, erupted and dominated the hearings and news.

There’s no doubt that some conservatives’ motives were open to question. “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 the Rev. Peter Marshall, one board-appointed reviewer early in the process.

Statements like this make Christian conservatives an easy target and alarm people of all political views. In April 2009, then board president Don McLeroy insisted that the world was 10,000 years old and demanded publishers adjust science textbooks to meet his views.

But leftist ideologues like Berlanga tend to receive a full pass. In too many classrooms, and this has been true for a good quarter century, enslaved Africans, exterminated Indians, oppressed women, exploited immigrants and minorities, all discriminated against, some interred in concentration camps, comprise the American narrative. Was Truman a war criminal? Let’s put him on trial in class.

Revisionists expect a classroom monopoly and exclusive interpretive rights to history. They do not want a balanced history and never have, but as historian Gary Nash once said, a redistribution of historical capital.

In social studies and across the curriculum, the diversity industry calls the tune – the only tune – in publishers’ editorial offices, and has for a long time. Diversity is locked into the textbook system. So when conservatives fight back, all hell breaks loose.

Christianity and religion in the nation’s founding aside, which textbook editors will undoubtedly fuzz over in a line or two, most of the amendments are insignificant. A few make no sense. Why substitute “free enterprise” for “capitalism,” for example? But Texas has not re-written the social studies curriculum. Thomas Jefferson is very much still around, and no one is trying to make Jefferson Davis the equal of Abraham Lincoln.

With this limited victory, conservatives should not pretend they have made history textbooks right. Putting Phyllis Schlafly in a textbook does not make it better. Keeping Dolores Huerta out is not much of a victory. Dumbed-down and narrative-free history textbooks are still the rule.

Conservatives can be happy that multiculturalism has not gone unchecked. But Texas textbooks are not going to be suddenly better or really much different from what is already in classrooms. History textbooks are not fixed. Thoughtful conservatives should not dream otherwise.

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 7, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  T, Texas and history, Texas board of education, Texas conservatives, Texas curriculum, Texas social studies, Texas standards  
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