Twisting History in Texas
By Eric Foner
March 18, 2010
The changes to the social studies curriculum recently approved by the conservative-dominated Texas Board of Education have attracted attention mainly because of how they may affect textbooks used in other states. Since Texas certifies texts centrally rather than by individual school districts, publishers have a strong incentive to alter their books to conform to its standards so as to reach the huge Texas market. Where was Lee Harvey Oswald, after all, when he shot John F. Kennedy? In the Texas School Book Depository--a tall Dallas building filled with textbooks.
Most comment on the content of the new standards has focused on the mandate that high school students learn about leading conservative figures and institutions of the 1980s and '90s, specifically Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, the Contract With America and the NRA. In fact, there is nothing wrong with teaching about modern conservatism, a key force in recent American history. My own textbook has a chapter called "The Triumph of Conservatism" and discusses most of the individuals and groups mentioned above.
More interesting is what the new standards tell us about conservatives' overall vision of American history and society and how they hope to instill that vision in the young. The standards run from kindergarten through high school, and certain themes obsessively recur. Judging from the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners.
Here are a few examples. The board has removed mention of the Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention, the letters of John and Abigail Adams and suffrage advocate Carrie Chapman Catt. As examples of "good citizenship" for third graders, it deleted Harriet Tubman and included Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Helen Keller (the board seems to have slipped up here--Keller was a committed socialist). The role of religion--but not the separation of church and state--receives emphasis throughout. For example, religious revivals are now listed as one of the twelve major "events and eras" from colonial days to 1877.
The changes seek to reduce or elide discussion of slavery, mentioned mainly for its "impact" on different regions and the coming of the Civil War. A reference to the Atlantic slave trade is dropped in favor of "Triangular trade." Jefferson Davis's inaugural address as president of the Confederacy will now be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's speeches.
In grade one, Veterans Day replaces Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the list of holidays students should be familiar with. (Later, "building a military" has been added as one of two results of the Revolution--the other being the creation of the United States--an odd inclusion, given the founders' fear of a standing army.) The Double-V Campaign during World War II (blacks' demand that victory over the Axis powers be accompanied by victory over segregation at home) has been omitted from the high school curriculum. Japanese-American internment is now juxtaposed with "the regulation of some foreign nationals," ignoring the fact that while a few Germans and Italians were imprisoned as enemy aliens, the vast majority of people of Japanese ancestry who were interned were US citizens.
Students in several grades will be required to understand the "benefits" (but none of the drawbacks) of capitalism. The economic system, however, dares not speak its name--it is referred to throughout as "free enterprise." Labor unions are conspicuous by their absence. Mankind's impact on the environment is apparently entirely benign--the curriculum mentions dams for flood control and the benefits of transportation infrastructure but none of the problems arising from the exploitation of nature. Lest anyone think that Americans should not fall below a rudimentary standard of living, the kindergarten curriculum deletes food, shelter and clothing from its list of "basic human needs."
Americans, the board seems to suggest, do not need to take much notice of the rest of the world, or of noncitizens in this country. Kindergartners no longer have to learn about "people" who have contributed to American life, only about "patriots and good citizens." High school students must evaluate the pros and cons of US participation in "international organizations and treaties." In an original twist, third grade geography students no longer have to be able to identify on a map the Amazon, the Himalayas or (as if it were in another country) Washington, DC.
Clearly, the Texas Board of Education seeks to inculcate children with a history that celebrates the achievements of our past while ignoring its shortcomings, and that largely ignores those who have struggled to make this a fairer, more equal society. I have lectured on a number of occasions to Texas precollege teachers and have found them as competent, dedicated and open-minded as the best teachers anywhere. But if they are required to adhere to the revised curriculum, the students of our second most populous state will emerge ill prepared for life in Texas, America and the world in the twenty-first century.
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation's editorial board and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is the author of Give Me Liberty, an American history textbook.