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Posted at 6:29 AM ET, 04/ 2/2010

James McPherson on Texas history curriculum

By Valerie Strauss

A lot of attention has been focused on Texas in recent weeks because state officials decided to rewrite social studies curriculum and force kids to learn a distorted view of the country’s past.

Folks in other states are worried that the changes will wind up appearing in schools outside Texas. The state, with almost 5 million K-12 students, dictates what is in the textbooks it purchases from publishers, and other states often buy the same materials.

Texas textbooks will, for example, play down the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers (which actually can’t be overstated), and question the separation of church and state as a fundamental principle in the country’s creation.

There will be a new emphasis on conservative figures, including Phyllis Schlaffley. And students will study Abraham Lincoln’s and Jefferson Davis’s inaugural addresses, as if they had equal historical weight.

The changes are expected to be finalized in May.

I asked the award-winning historian James McPherson, what he thought about the Texas controversy.

Here’s what he said:

One can only regret the conservative pressure groups and members of the Texas education board that have forced certain changes in high school history textbooks used in the state.

Such politicization is nothing new -- I once wrote an article about successful efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, United Confederate veterans and other groups to get the Confederate viewpoint into American history textbooks from the 1890s to the 1920s.

And other interest groups have done the same on many different occasions.

The Texas issue is of greater concern because the board prescribes the acceptable texts for every public school in the state, which not only muzzles school districts and teachers who might want to choose their own books, but also puts pressure on national textbook publishers because Texas is such a large market.

On the whole, I think most U.S. history textbooks today are pretty good with respect to accuracy and integrity of interpretation. The publishers recruit respected professional historians to write and/or vet the material, and strive to meet professional standards for accuracy. I’m afraid, however, that many publishers dumb down the writing style in order to reach the rather low common denominator of students’ reading skills.

Frankly, I don’t think “pretty good” is good enough.

The Texas drama is one big subplot in a larger drama of textbook adoption across the country, a system that is so costly that only the largest publishers can afford to compete for contracts, and that often results in materials that are terribly written and sometimes inaccurate.

In fact, the Indiana state Board of Education warned local school districts not to use many of the social studies texts actually adopted by the state because, it effectively said, they are lousy.

“Many of the available social studies textbooks do not provide content that is interesting, engaging and supportive of effective and interested student learning,” said an open letter the board issued a year ago to state educators.

And that was BEFORE Texas decided to rewrite history.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 2, 2010; 6:29 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  history curriculum, texas, textbooks  
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Is it really the introduction of bias into Texas history textbooks that has everyone's feathers ruffled? Or, is it the introduction of a conservative bias?

I don't see the same panicked response when liberal viewpoints are integrated into textbooks/curriculum in states like, for instance, California. How many education articles are written lambasting schools for showing "An Inconvenient Truth"?

What I suspect, then, is that this overreaction to the Texas history book issue has a lot more to do with ideological conflict than a genuine desire to see truly objective textbooks and curricula.

The fact of the matter is that people on both sides of the political spectrum try to inject their politics and ideology into schools. To suggest that the Texas issue is an isolated event and that only conservative do this kind of thing is dishonest.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | April 2, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

"To suggest that the Texas issue is an isolated event and that only conservative do this kind of thing is dishonest."

Read this again from the article:
"And other interest groups have done the same on many different occasions."

Posted by: edlharris | April 2, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

AJGuzzaldo, to pretend that this is anything but a ham-handed attempt to rewrite history to favor a peculiar “conservative” philosophy is disingenuous.

Those who have studied the religious extremists and radical rightwing for a while know this kind of social engineering was comes from the play books of the former Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, who urged members to run for election onto school boards and other low-level offices in order to create an American theocracy that favors their extremist views from the bottom up.

Alleging the it is important for students to know about Newt Gingrich, a disgraced former politician reprimanded for corruption and shamed by his multiple marriages and divorces while pretending to be a moral leader and not about a Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of our republic is ludicrous. Phyllia Schlafly may be a hero to you but her impact on American history is minimal at best outside of the very insular and very small conservative circles unless you want to include all extremists as equally influential in textbooks.

As a famous Bush administration flunky once said, facts have a liberal bias. This is of the same cloth as the poorly thought out mission of Conservapedia to rewrite the bible to favor conservative politics.

I guess since the conservatives have proven that their philosophy has failed miserably (through the Bush administration’s complete control of all 3 branches of government over 6 of the 8 years of his presidency) and since they lost the last presidential and congressional elections by large margins, they feel that their best chance is to force their viewpoints on captive school children in the hopes that it will indoctrinate them into believing things that are easily proven to be false, as is much of what passes for “conservative" thought today..

That is not factual history -- it is propaganda and it has no place in public schools. Conservatives already choose, in large numbers, to home school their own children to hide reality from them. This is simply a political gambit at maintaing legitimacy and has failed miserably. The Texas school board is an international laughing stock outside of their own circles. Congratulations!

Posted by: GooberP | April 2, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

What Texas does to its educational standards will have a minimum impact to the rest of the country. Sure it is a textbook adoption state and textbook makers are willing to make special editions of their books for Texas, but Texas are not the only state textbook makers make special editions for. Textbook makers make special editions for all adoption states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia and 14 other states including Texas. These state's education boards approve a handful of books that the school districts must purchase from.

School districts in the other 30 states are free to purchase whatever textbook they want to, but they must MEET or EXCEED the state minimum standards. They are not allowed purchase the cheapest one.

As for Texas, it is 45 amongst the states when it comes to education standards. That means 44 states have higher educational standards and they CANNOT purchase the Texas iteration.

You can thank Clinton for that one.

Posted by: cactusmanjack | April 2, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Does it really matter since Americans are already brainwashed.

The few bad teachers in public education are responsible for failures rates above 50 percent in the 4th grade in public schools in poverty areas.

Shipping and giving American jobs to foreign workers are good for the American economy.

4 billion for Race To The Top will greatly change public education when 20 billion is going to be spent on Afghan policemen for two years and 6 billion is going to be spent on Cash For Caulking.

Massive unemployment is not a problem in the United States and the American economy will grow strong on non exportable jobs.

American children have to compete in education with Asian children even though American companies simply give away American jobs to cheap labor.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 2, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Textbooks have always been political. Always. Name a textbook that you consider the "accurate" one, and I am certain I can find political bias in it.

History is a political subject. I do not approve of downplaying Jefferson's role in founding the country, nor do I approve of the bias against the separation of church and state. And yet: Texas should have the autonomy to make these changes, then watch them either fail or succeed. If you continue to ram values down your neighbors' throats, how is that going to help anyone?

States need the freedom to fail. This is an absolute must for a republic to succeed AS A WHOLE. States can and should fail from time to time. It will not be the end of the whole world.

Posted by: patrick4 | April 3, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

I have little use for the meddling by the Texas board, but I am also not dumb enough (or partisan enough) to pretend that even deeper biases do not already exist in our history textbooks.

Most disciplines are susceptible to biases in choosing what to cover and how to cover it, but history more so than most. History is a story of who we are, and it teaches us how to think about ourselves. Read multiple accounts of the same event in a history textbook from America, another from Britain, another from China, and another two or three from other countries. You will see just how radically interpretations of history differ across cultures and national identities.

Thus, it is no surprise in the U.S. that a multi-cultural society with polarized political viewpoints comes to an impasse over history textbooks. The problem, I think, is not that history textbooks have perspectives to them, but that they lack enough perspectives. In trying to please everyone, textbook writers strip most of the controversy out of history to the point that the textbooks offer a single, bland, lukewarm reading of history that offends no one and bores everyone.

At a certain age, these simplified views of history are necessary, even if they are likely to leave strong impressions on young minds, and thus deeply contentious in public debates. Still, a nuanced discussion of the problems of secession and slavery in the mid-19th century simply is not possible with an eight-year-old, and so we simply have to say that slavery was bad and that the North prevailed in the Civil War. By high school, however, I think that students can and should be weighing the merits of Lincoln's decision essentially to violate the common existing understanding of states' right to secede with a fiat declaration that the strength of national unity was more important--"A nation divided against itself shall not stand." Give students conflicting and opposing views of history. Let them read historical documents with conflicting perspectives of that time. Then develop in students the critical skills to weigh and judge events in history.

The historical facts that students learn are important, but I care much more how students learn to think and judge. With the current watered-down, one-dimensional texts, I fear that most fail to learn the skill of critical judgment, and thus the importance of history in the first place, at all.

Posted by: blert | April 3, 2010 1:47 AM | Report abuse

Textbooks in history at the high school level in probably every state are not especially interesting. Effective teachers are and will continue to supplement them with other sources of information, including other reading materials, lectures, films, documentaries, etc.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | April 3, 2010 1:53 AM | Report abuse

One of my most formative events in the understanding of history was discussing the American Revolution (The War of Rebellion) with a Canadian who had undertaken secondary school studies a hundred miles from my own US secondary school.

Posted by: cbarris | April 3, 2010 3:09 AM | Report abuse

First the New York Times and now the Washington Post? Please do your research instead of hearsay before posting such garbage. Texas textbooks will NOT play down the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers. If you would have read the Texas State Board of Education's statement then you wouldn't have written such nonsense. However, I'll do your job for you and provide some snippets from their statement:

“We expect students at the elementary level, in middle school and in high school to study the Founding Fathers and to be well versed in their contributions to our country. That includes Thomas Jefferson and his legacy.”

Although Jefferson had been listed in a World History standard, the board removed
his name from a list of European Enlightenment philosophers that included John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

“This was inappropriate placement of Jefferson’s name. Jefferson was not himself an Enlightenment philosopher, although he was heavily influenced by the writings of these individuals. But to say the State Board of Education has removed him from the TEKS is inaccurate and irresponsible.”

“Jefferson not only penned the words of the Declaration of Independence, served as the third president of the United States and was father of the University of Virginia, but his promotion of the ideals of a limited federal government and
states’ rights also permeated our nation for generations. No study of American history would be complete without his inclusion.”

Please, in the future, do a little more research before posting such erroneous, inaccurate dribble.

Posted by: zildjian35 | April 3, 2010 3:48 AM | Report abuse

All in all, the controversy is probably just a positive sign that anyone cares.

That said, the Post seems to have played up the sensationalism if Zildjian's comment is right.

Any chance the Post will answer Zildjian's charges? It does seem like lazy reporting if all the Texas Board did was remove Jefferson from a list of Europeans but that gets labeled as downplaying him.

Who is worse, the Texas Board or Jay Mathews?

Posted by: chrisfriendly | April 3, 2010 4:18 AM | Report abuse

I graduated from the same public school system that spawned a fool like Glenn Beck. Go figure.

Posted by: bdunn1 | April 3, 2010 5:50 AM | Report abuse

There is no argument that history is written from many perspectives. Wrongs want to be righted, competing analogies need to be addressed. But what bothers me about Texas's approach is that there is an underlying attempt by the far right conservatives in this country to re-write the cultural landscape with broad, overarching ideologies that conform to their vision. Newt Gingrich, among others, have made it clear that nothing short of neo-conservatism must temper the lens through which issues are viewed. This is a National scale, not one that provokes common and true histories. It is the voices of few trying to indoctrinate the whole with their one and only abstraction of how things happened, and place their heroes in the historical landscape whether or not they deserve National merit.

When one reads that "Liberals", whatever that means, have been controlling the dialogue, one needs to remember that "Liberalism" is the even exchange of ideas that speak to the whole, not to the tiny minority who feels ostracized because their beliefs are not mainstream.

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Posted by: plzzfjdsiao | April 3, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

"The publishers recruit respected professional historians to write and/or vet the material, and strive to meet professional standards for accuracy."

James McPherson needs to find out more about how textbooks are written. The "author" may never see anything except the material he submits. I personally know of one case in which the "author" demanded that her name be taken off the finished product because alterations by the publisher had changed to book and written in so many mistakes.

Incidentally, several years ago a school tried to eliminate textbooks in favor of supplementary readings and lectures, as you find in most college classes. They found that their history teachers were unable to prepare notes without a text and were unable to assign supplementary readings because the didn't know much more history than was in the textbook.

If teachers really knew the subject, they wouldn't stand for any of the textbooks they are expected to use.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | April 3, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

How about some specific objections? I've seen one list of maybe 10 issues, most changes were related to emphasis and seemed totally reasonable. Almost everything mentioned in the MSM just cites some academic lamenting the changes but provides no examples. Hopefully, future coverage will be better.

Posted by: mbc7 | April 3, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Texans have never been known for their tolerance or intelligence.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | April 3, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

It will be difficult to identify specific harms from the changes mandated for Texas madrassas. They are intended to establish certain attitudes favored by the Christian Righteous and to suppress others attributed to Dam Libruls. Tough to measure impact, even there is no doubt that they matter.

Posted by: frodot | April 3, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Coming soon to a textbook near you - chapters on "How the South Won the Civil War", "Slavery is Okay, According to the Old Testament", "How the United States Became a One-Party Government" (Republican, of course).

Makes you wonder how the students who are taught history from the Texas point of view will do on their SATs.

Posted by: Utahreb | April 3, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Teachers and Principals would not have approved such nonsense. We need to get schools back into the hands of teachers and principals who know the needs of their community.

Otherwise we will continue to have school boards and other policy wonks who no nothing about education and have never stepped foot into the classroom deciding how we should educate our children.

Posted by: tazmodious | April 3, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Just one more example of the contempt held by the ultra-right wing idiots politically active around the State of Texas.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | April 3, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

"Is it really the introduction of bias into Texas history textbooks that has everyone's feathers ruffled? Or, is it the introduction of a conservative bias?"

No! It is the introduction of falsehoods, omissions of fact, and outright lies that is "ruffling feathers." History, as with science, should be taught honestly -- not to support one side or the other -- and based upon the most complete and accurate information available. What is learned can then be used for critical analysis and discussion leading each person to draw his or her own conclusions.

What troubles most of these fundamentalist conservatives is that, to them, facts have a liberal bias.

Posted by: lennyp | April 3, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

We progressives let the historians write the history books, the scientists write the science books. Unlike conservatives, who need to rewrite both history and science to suit their pathetic biased world view.

Texas is what happens when ignorance is made rich by oil. And they brag about both their wealth and ignorance.

We liberals don't need a Rush nor a Beck, we are smart enough to make our own opinion.

Posted by: thisnametaken | April 3, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

The article's author stated, "...the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers... actually can’t be overstated..." If this is true then the statement, "Thomas Jefferson was the only "founding father" who really mattered" would be true (though to any sane person it clearly is untrue.) This obvious major error at the beginning of the article should be an error that causes any thinking individual who reads it to cease reading further.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | April 3, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Great info I would also suggest using
Save Money, Save The Planet specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
With you're not only saving trees, you are saving some green.

Posted by: greentextbooks | April 3, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

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