Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What’s Wrong with the Texas History Standards (It’s Not What You Think), Part I

On May 21, the Texas State Board of Education voted to adopt a new set of Social Studies standards for Texas public schools. The standards review process has been controversial for months, with critics accusing the board of politicizing the past and advancing a far right version of historical events. (The review has attracted national attention at least in part because of claims, perhaps too strong, that due to the size of the Texas textbook market, publishers will tailor their books for what Texas wants and just sell that version to the rest of the country.)

Much of the criticism directed at the State Board of Education is well deserved. But I want to suggest that the real problem with Texas’ standards transcends the particular examples most often cited in the press: the inclusion or exclusion of this or that historical figure, the blatant partisanship in crafting standard language and examples, and the injection of contemporary political battles into the past.

But first, the standard critiques.

In the buffoonish category, in January, the board expunged references to the classic children’s book author Bill Martin, Jr. (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? and a host of similar books) for Third Graders because they confused him with a DePaul University Philosopher, also named Bill Martin, who wrote a book on Marxism. (I’ve never seen reported that the actual children’s author Bill Martin also wrote Adam, Adam, What Do You See, a biblical story in the mode of the original and including references to Old and New Testament figures To his credit, board member Don McLeroy admitted the error (he called it “embarrassing”) and admitted the lack of research behind the decision. The full board later restored the original Bill Martin.

In the distorted category, there’s no issue more striking than the faith of the founders and the historical place of religion in American history—a particular focus of the conservative bloc on the board. One new standard passed in May asks students to “[e]xamine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its 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’.”. The intent here is to suggest that the First Amendment does not in fact, guarantee the separation of church and state. I call this a distorted provision because it misrepresents how historians understand change over time: not whether later actions or ideas hold water to some original pronouncement, but how broad ideas have been contested. That’s the essence of history. (I started writing about the faith of the founders in my first post here.)

Some board actions can only be described as attempting to use history very selectively to impart a politically partisan message. In March, for instance, the board adopted an amendment on teaching the Civil Rights movement offered by Don McLeroy that included a clause instructing students to “describe the role of individuals and groups that sought to maintain the status quo, such as governors George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox, and including the Congressional bloc of southern Democrats.” This specificity was hardly random; Wallace, Faubus, and Maddox were all Democratic governors (of Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, respectively). The intent here is clear: to associate Democratic (big-D) officials with opposition to black Civil Rights.

Additionally, the board replaced all instances of the phrase “democratic society” with “constitutional republic.” As David Barton, one of the board’s outside reviewers, explained in his critique of the existing standards: “Because America is correctly identified as a republic and not as a democracy, the derivative of this is that ‘republican’ rather than ‘democratic’ is the proper adjective – that is, we have “republican” values or “republican” process rather than ‘democratic’ values or process.” This change is either one of deliberate political partisanship (Barton is a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party) or an example of blatant ignorance of American history—which has been shaped in no small part by arguments over the nature of democracy itself (for white men with property? all white men? men? men and women both? through popular elections or intermediaries like state legislatures appointing Senators or the electoral college electing presidents? for citizens of a state or of the country as a whole?) It’s no accident that the local organizations that sprung up in support of Thomas Jefferson at the turn of the 19th century were known as Democratic-Republican societies or that the first truly national party to emerge in the 19th century around Andrew Jackson was Democratic—both Jefferson and Jackson appealed to a mass of Americans to see themselves as the proper heirs of the revolution and the nation. The fight over the meaning of American democracy can only be expunged by doing violence to an understanding of the past.

Nevertheless, some of the criticism directed at the board has been misplaced or exaggerated.

Among the most common examples cited in the press, two stand out the most. The first is the new standard requiring that students studying late 20th century history learn about such influential conservative groups as the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association, and legislative programs like Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, according to ABC’s Nightline, “with no liberal counterbalance.”

But history does not require conservative and liberal balance. It requires an honest explanation of change over time. That means representing every historical actor and view required to understand historical change. It does not require an “on the one hand, on the other hand” presentation. Not to say that there haven’t been important liberal organizations in the late 20th century, but the big political story of this period was the rise of modern conservatism, and this subject has been the focus of a number of important recent works, among them histories of free market right, the rise of anti-regulation sentiment among the blue collar ranks of truck drivers, the emergence of modern political divisiveness, the emergence of the modern right and its political dominance, and biographies of the influential author Ann Rand. Students should learn about the rise of the modern right—provided it isn’t a one-sided view.

Another example concerns new provisions that students read the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis alongside that of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s address is almost entirely about slavery, with the emphatic declaration at the opening that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” On the other hand, Davis’ address makes no mention of slavery whatsoever, speaking only vaguely about the violation of southern rights and the principles of consent of the governed. Is this a poor assignment?

This is touchy subject. In some sense, primary documents (which I often assign in my own classes) are inherently tricky—students are necessarily reading these documents out of context. Historical texts do not speak for themselves—they are produced at precise moments with specific references that are gradually forgotten over time and can only be restored to some approximation of their meaning by careful historical research and insightful teaching. That contextualization is certainly possible in this assignment. In the context of Confederate foreign relations, for example, Jeff Davis claimed in his address that for the Confederacy, as “[a]n agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of commodities required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest and that of all those to whom we would sell, and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of these commodities”—of course, that’s “the fewest practicable restrictions” on trade, not the enslaved people responsible for much of southern agriculture. Studying Jeff Davis ought not to be off limits to historical study—and in fact, the young W.E.B. DuBois produced just the kind of historical contextualization of Davis that is appropriate for the classroom, offering “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization”—a simultaneously noble and vile civilization—as his student commencement address at Harvard in 1890.

The list of partisan changes as well as overblown ones could easily be continued—check out the Texas Freedom Network’s blog for the most detailed coverage I have located, as well as the Texas Education Agency’s own site for many of the draft documents and reviews along the way.

But there is something broader that’s wrong with Texas’ new standards. For more, stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Ugh. This hurt. Our news media's understanding of what's critical and appropriate:
    "...according to ABC’s Nightline, 'with no liberal counterbalance.'"