Texas textbook controversy misses the mark

In her fascinating 2003 book, The Language Police, Diane Ravitch chronicles the dumbing down of our public education system through the pervasive and insidious censorship of textbooks.  She lamented the homogenization of education brought about largely by the incessant quest to remove controversial topics, words and phrases from the educational process.  Of particular concern to Ravitch was her conclusion that history texts are among the most profoundly infected with political correctness; leading her to note that “in no other subject do American seniors score as low as they do in U.S. history.” 

Oft times heated disputes between conservatives and liberals continue to surface when boards of education — especially in the larger states — consider changes to textbook language.

Most recently, this problem boiled over in Texas, the nation’s second-largest consumer of textbooks for public school students.  Last month, the Lone Star state’s elected board of education met and agreed preliminarily to a number of changes to American history texts that will be acceptable for use in its public schools over the next decade.  The changes are expected to be finalized when the board meets in May; but the fireworks have already started.

Among the more controversial decisions recommended by the Republican-dominated board:

  • Downgrading the role Thomas Jefferson played in our nation’s founding, apparently because his secular views conflicted with the more Christian-oriented views of a majority of the Texas board.
  • Softening how textbooks treat former Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who berated and impugned those with whom he disagreed during the 1950s “Red Scare.”
  • Excluding reference to “hip-hop” music as a favorable example of modern American culture.
  • Incorporating specific reference to “American exceptionalism.”
  • Including mention of recent, conservative-based political activities and personalities, such as 1994’s “Contract With America,” conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” and the National Rifle Association.
  • Description of our nation’s prevalent economic system as one based on “free enterprise.”
  • Changing references of our country’s government structure as “democratic” to “constitutional republic.” 

In all, the school board has made more than 100 amendments to the state’s history texts.  Some of these, such as declining to elevate “hip-hop” to the status of being a cultural benefit, and properly describing our country as a “republic” rather than a “democracy,” make a great deal of sense.  Others, however (downplaying the importance of one of our great Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, because he did not appear to be sufficiently religious), do not. 

More troubling than is the process of crafting textbooks to reflect particular views or so as to highlight those individuals, political activities, or institutions one elected official prefers over others, is the fact that advocates on both sides of these proceedings appear to misunderstand what is the purpose of a history textbook in the first place.  

American history textbooks are not intended to be, and should not be written or amended to serve as, laundry lists of favored cultural events or personalities.  They are a tool, and not necessarily the most important tool, in a school system’s “toolbox” of instruments with which to ensure that students understand what our nation was and is; and what is was intended to be.  Whether we today like Thomas Jefferson or not (I happen to be among those who do), he was one of the most important figures of our formative era; and diminishing his role distorts history.  And whether we like or disdain organizations such as the NRA (as a member of its board of directors, I am a strong supporter), its role in the modern political era probably is not among those critical to include in a history text. 

Much more important than these fights over inclusion or exclusion, should be concerns over the education, training and teaching methods of those tasked with actually teaching from those textbooks – our teachers.

41 comments Add your comment

Jethro

April 19th, 2010
6:53 am

When I was in school, history wasn’t taught with an eye toward critical analysis, i.e., the impact of the Red Scare, hip hop (of all things). History was presented as “just the facts,” and more critical analysis was offered in college. The reasoning behind this was that such a broad spectrum of information was required in the short time the public education system had available. Couple that with the added emphasis on math & science, and the fact that most HS history teachers were mostly coaches “filling in the gaps,” as it were, and history today gets short shrift.

Aquagirl

April 19th, 2010
7:11 am

I’m more concerned about parents sending ill-prepared, undisciplined kids to school than whether a teacher is trained in the latest educational fad. Teachers aren’t magicians.

fred smith

April 19th, 2010
7:39 am

A very strong supporter of public education I am. As such, one of the clearest indicators of the abject failure of public education may not only be that there are such ill-educated halfwits on a state school board, but that there is a sufficient proportion of ill-educated halfwits in said state to elect them. My other half, whose public school charges she typically helps go on to the Harvards, MITs and Northwesterns of the world – and consider the state schools as a (distant) step down (sorry folks, sad but true) – sees many private school kids step up to her public school: EVERY ONE of them has been far, far behind the kids who come up through Gwinnett public preparation. Wonder if the problem in TX is that they elect privately schooled marginals to the state public school board – - – (And yes, I know only too well, not all publics are that good, and the kids she gets are indeed bright and disciplined.)

neo-Carlinist

April 19th, 2010
7:43 am

Bob, every been to Texas? if so, this should come as no surprise. this is post-Tea Party, “states rights” territorial pissing and nothing more. does the phrase; “Don’t Mess with Texas” ring a bell? the irony is downright ironic! Texans want it know they are NOT “politically correct” and will go so far as to remove “facts” – what some would refer to as censorship – from history texts and “teach” urban myths and demographically edited quasi-history, just so the rest of us (’specially those meddlesome, liberal, socialists in Washington, DC) keep stay out of their business.

Aquagirl

April 19th, 2010
7:47 am

The problem with the TX school board is it’s filled with right-wing creationist idiots.

YouAreUnCivil

April 19th, 2010
8:04 am

I have a change for yah!!!! How about changing “Columbus discovered America” to “Columbus relocated to America”?

Morrus

April 19th, 2010
8:14 am

Vote out the incumbents and start over

Aquaman

April 19th, 2010
8:23 am

“The problem with the TX school board is it’s filled with right-wing creationist idiots.”

And left wingers wonder why they are about to be endangered in November.

KSimpson

April 19th, 2010
8:36 am

^ It doesn’t take a left winger to know that creationism is idiocy. From a registered libertarian and scientist, anyone who claims creationism has no business on a school board.

jconservative

April 19th, 2010
8:42 am

“ What experience and history teach is this: that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history.” Hegel

If you start changing history to meet the whim of the day, then people and government will learn even less from history. What happened is what happened.

Rational Person

April 19th, 2010
8:49 am

The SBOE also decided to omit any mention of important people like Ted Kennedy and Caesar Chavez, people who made history in the 20th century. They also left out the brave Tejanos who fought for Texas’ independence, apparently getting their history from a John Wayne movie.

The Texas GOP’s platform can be found as a pdf on the Web. They are essentially an arm of the John Birch Society.

BTW, some textbook publishers have said that Texas’ control over the textbook industry is just one more urban myth, so maybe the rest of the country can get a decent education.

Rational Person

April 19th, 2010
8:56 am

Aquagirl, you are exactly right. Stay strong.

Not on my watch

April 19th, 2010
9:06 am

OOPS! How did creationism get into a blog about history?

There is talk of national standards for education. I assume those would NOT come from Texas. (one can hope)

I say we go back to teaching FACTS. Let kids go home and discuss these things with their parents and let the parents brainwash them in whatever manner they see fit.

neo-Carlinist

April 19th, 2010
9:08 am

is it me, or is there another text book, which was written after the fact, but over the years, has been edited and tweeked by “experts” in order to futher a very skewed political agenda? hmmmph.

Jess

April 19th, 2010
9:31 am

Bob,

Are you suggesting that this is a new practice. I think text book propoganda has been occuring since there have been text books. I think we would all be surprised if we could somehow get an unbiased view of our nation’s and the world’s history.

Rusty G.

April 19th, 2010
9:39 am

I agree with much of what you have said here, with one exception. Except for the ‘analysis’ of outsiders, I haven’t seen evidence that sending Jefferson to the back burner was explicitly on religious grounds – it might be a reasonable assumption, but jefferson’s widely known internal conflicts on the slavery issue and his compelling personal story have, in some curricula, expanded his role rather dramatically relative to other key historical figures. If his deism was the reason for lowering his coverage, I would agree with you, but is that really the case here?

Not on my watch

April 19th, 2010
9:40 am

It’s interesting when you travel and live in other countries. You get to see the US through other eyes.

I lived in Japan for a year and learned about some pretty heinous things that were done by Allied forces during WW2. I know that is the nature of war and I am not passing judgement, but it is amazing what things are not included in history books.

You know the saying, “The victor writes the history books.”

Rational Person

April 19th, 2010
9:45 am

Not on my watch
April 19th, 2010
9:06 am

OOPS! How did creationism get into a blog about history?

————

Because the head of the Texas SBOE is a dentist who believes in creationism.

matt r

April 19th, 2010
9:45 am

Like the kids are gonna read the book anyway :) They will learn what the teacher expects them to learn, i.e. what the teacher tests them on. Now if a history teacher needs a textbook to teach the teacher history… then we have a teacher problem.

Aquagirl

April 19th, 2010
9:48 am

Creationism got into this blog because the same nitwits who want to cut out Jefferson have been deeply embroiled in cutting out science. If you openly dismiss fact, your ability to evaluate bias-prone subjects such as history should be utterly rejected.

Not on my watch

April 19th, 2010
9:53 am

Hold up, I was just being snarky. I know the two are connected.

As a left-leaning centrist, I take pride in the fact that my students truly do not know my political views. I leave the brainwashing to parents (until the kids made a personal choice to grow a brain.)

Jefferson

April 19th, 2010
9:55 am

Georgia would be the same way if they could.

retiredds

April 19th, 2010
10:06 am

What should we call this Bob? Activist school board? Looks a lot like revisionist history by non-historians to me.

Hillbilly Deluxe

April 19th, 2010
10:18 am

In my time in school, I had one really good history teacher. He taught our 11th grade American History and Government class. He is the only teacher I ever had who always presented both sides of a story. At any time in history, on any subject, there is always opposition. In time, history tends to be viewed through the perspective of those whose side came out ahead. This teacher would always tell us what was in the book about a particular topic and then he’d say, “But there were those who didn’t see things that way. This was their view…..”. It made history far more interesting than just learning names and dates.

Aquagirl

April 19th, 2010
10:25 am

Freakin’ emoticons. You can’t be snarky without looking like a 12 year old girl.

@Rusty, Jefferson was removed from a standard on connecting ideas of the Enlightenment in connection with political revolutions. The right-wing crazies also dropped the Enlightenment part, which isn’t surprising. They miss the good ‘ol days of feudalism and the Inquisition.

You can read the original Texas History standard, and the resulting right-wing hack job here:

http://www.charlotteconservative.com/index.php/2010/03/the-thomas-jefferson-question-interview-with-texas-freedom-networks-dan-quinn-over-textbook-controversy/

Swede Atlanta

April 19th, 2010
11:04 am

I for one can’t wait for Texas to secede from the Union. We can then erect fences along the border. There will be no diplomatic or commercial ties with the rebels. No air service or postal service will be permitted either.

That would be the best day this nation has had since 1776.

Jefferson

April 19th, 2010
12:16 pm

You can’t trust a state that thinks BBQ is made from beef.

Hillbilly Deluxe

April 19th, 2010
12:20 pm

You can’t trust a state that thinks BBQ is made from beef.

A valid point, there.

Gator Joe

April 19th, 2010
12:22 pm

Dear Bob:
I enjoyed your article and I agree with your point of view on the “manipulation” of text books to promote a particular agenda. Ideally, the study of history should be based on objective facts, and hopefully would inspire students to do further research. Most, high school (and middle or elementary) history texts are superficial at best. I’m a Liberal, though you sound like the type of conservative one could have a civil and enjoyable discussion of politics with, over coffee, or better yet a beer.

Gerald West

April 19th, 2010
12:30 pm

Excellent article, Mr. Barr! When you drop all that conservative vs. liberal nonsense your mind and pen come alive with well-selected information and well-thought perspective.

Did you ever consider running for public office as a rational thinker without bias toward a political dogma or political party? All political dogmas are failures, for example fascism, socialism, communism, conservatism, etc. Political parties are failures; just look at the people who gain power through them.

Chris Broe

April 19th, 2010
4:22 pm

They had to dumb it all down, man. They had no choice. The reason is obvious

BTW: BarBque IS made from….from……PEOPLE! It’s made from people!

Aughh!! Barbeque is made from People! From PeoPollllle!

PEOPOLLLLL, barBque is made.

People.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

April 19th, 2010
8:50 pm

I extrapolate from the text, that the Texans are de-emphasizing the “Great Man” theory of history, and perhaps focusing more on the events that changed the world. If so, I approve.

As to “softening” how they treat Tail-gunner Joe, that reflects nothing more than the events of the past 20 years, that opening the Soviet archives proved McCarthy right on practically every allegation that flowed from his lips, that the accused who denied lied in every case, and that the innocent democrats who sided with the exposed-communists were mere dupes. As a point of order, I would respectfully note that both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were mourners at the funeral of the Wisconsin senator. There were patriotic democrats at one time.

Buford Buzzard

April 19th, 2010
10:13 pm

Where’s Loganville?

North Dave

April 20th, 2010
2:18 pm

This is just another example of America re-writing it’s past and future through re-wording. The politics of division that both left and right are doing to steer people to thier way of thinking. Given the intellect of the average anerican, it will probably go unnoticed. I feel sorry for anyone living in your country trying to be accomadating to other views. It must be hard for a wise person to live there amongst the unwashed masses of ignorant republicans and democrats. You need a third party to shake up your system. Perhaps you could call it the Intelligent People’s Party.
Oops, sorry. There would be no one qualified to join!

J Biden

April 21st, 2010
10:05 am

This is a Big F’in deal!!

ugaaccountant

April 27th, 2010
11:03 am

I don’t see anything here that changes “facts”.

The Jefferson one is the most difficult one, but nothing you wrote implies that it changes any facts.

McCarthyism is interesting, but to be honest who doesn’t want a politician to stand up for his beliefs? Our system currently is mired in party politics and if we had a McCarthy equivalent defending us against socialism and out of control spending we’d be in much better shape.

Hip-hop isn’t important enough to be in a history book. I’m sorry, but we shouldn’t shove diversity in when it’s not warranted. There’s not enough hours in a history course to cover this. Nor should rock and roll or country music be mentioned. This is history, not cultural studies.

American exceptionalism – I’d rather have positive propoganda than negative

1994’s “Contract With America” is absolutely the key topic for the 90’s. That set the stage for the last 2 decades which of course deserve their fair share of the class time.

“free enterprise.” – I fail to see the controversy here. That is a descriptive term for our system.

Changing references of our country’s government structure from “democratic” to “constitutional republic.” – This actually is a very interesting and correct change.

heardindke

May 10th, 2010
8:19 pm

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galeunform

May 10th, 2010
8:20 pm

reefordmer

May 10th, 2010
8:21 pm

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Publius

May 20th, 2010
12:04 am

Has anyone read the actual comments submitted by the subject matter experts from across the country over the last year to the board members as a part of the revision process? Has anyone looked at the method the TX SBOE used to solicit and vet the input? I think that if someone is REALLY concerned about the issue, instead of just wanting to stir up trouble and perpetuate mindless groupthink, they would. Note that in the article above, there are no citations to the TX SBOE documents. Note that this bullet (copied from the article above) on Jefferson: “Downgrading the role Thomas Jefferson played in our nation’s founding, apparently because his secular views conflicted with the more Christian-oriented views of a majority of the Texas board” says the reason is APPARENTLY because for religious reasons. If this is a serious article, seems to me we should raise our journalistic standards and get to the real reason, and not deal in “apparently’s”. A few other items that may have been omitted in the author’s haste to get the “facts” out:

1 – Jefferson is not being eliminated. His role is accurately being described as a drafter of the initial versions of the Constitution. The final version is not as closely aligned with Jefferson’s ideas as it is with those of Charles Pinckney – an historical fact that has gradually been eliminated over the years. The is being corrected. Additionally, there were many, many people involved in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, so reducing (not eliminating) Jefferson’s role is actually just providing accurate context for what happened. Giving him undue credit is the inaccurate approach.

2 – The economic theorist, Adam Smith, coined the term “free-market system” in the 1700’s, not the TX SBOE in the 21st century as a part of a propaganda plan. Smith is widely regarded as the father of modern economics whose concept of the “invisible hand” is the basis for such a free market, and our economy.

3 – Alexis de Tocqueville described our form of government and economy as exceptional in his book Democracy in America, not the TX SBOE. As a result, the concept of “American Exceptionalism” has endured for over 200 years now. The problem is that some folks don’t want to admit that America is exceptional because that implies that America is better than other countries. Unfortunately for them this is a fact that results from the implementation of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, among other documents. If not, why isn’t there anyone fighting to leave, just get in?
“The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” – Tocqueville, Democracy in America

For folks so concerned about “facts”, it is hard to comprehend how so many facts could have been overlooked.

Just give me the tools to think

July 12th, 2010
10:09 pm

Unbelievable, I am trying to do some soul searching to form an educated opinion about this subject. True analysis of what was taken out and what was put into the Texas textbooks. I have searched for days now, but no luck. Scanned numerous articles on both sides and cannot find the answer, just partisan jaw flapping. I see a Bob Barr blog and think maybe he can shed some light.

This blog spans from April 19th to May 20th and ends with the insight of “Publius”. THANK YOU Publius for a breadcrumb, a real morsel that might extend my journey. Your comments seem to have ended this debate. To Mr. Barr and the rest of you political hacks I am greatly disappointed.

As best I can tell, the rewrite injects critical thinking of our beliefs and norms. Is that not what we hear all the time, that if we do not learn from history we are destine to repeat it. Maybe the reason students fail history is because they don’t want to be spoon feed but challenged to think. They want to take multiple points of view and form their own beliefs not yours or mine.