UGA historian: Bill seeks to take ideological ax to U.S. history

There are a lot strange bills floating around the Legislature, some of which merit the close attention of educators. James C. Cobb, the Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia, spent time looking at one of the most unusual of the bunch,  Senate Bill 426.

To my reading, the bill appears to mandate the teaching of a sanitized view of U.S. history.

Cobb’s most recent book is “The South and America Since World War II,” and he blogs at www.cobbloviate.com. A frequent political commentator, Cobb writes about about Charles Murray’s new book , “Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010,” on his most recent blog.

Here is his piece on SB 426.

By James C. Cobb

In the 43 years that I have taught United States history in both state universities and the public schools, I have done my best to resist the temptation to turn my lectern into a “bully pulpit” for proselytizing my personal political gospel. Not surprisingly, I also get my back up when others, with no particular preparation in the field but a truckload of ideological axes to grind, attempt to prescribe both the content of historical curricula and the lessons that are to be drawn from them.

A textbook example of such an effort to control the textbooks is Georgia Senate Bill 426, introduced by Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, and others and currently under subcommittee review. “The Teach Freedom Act” seeks to “modify requirements for instruction” in U.S. history and other related social studies disciplines. In keeping with the spirit of a similar initiative launched with Tea Party backing in Tennessee, this legislation is premised on the belief that “a positive understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship.”

The problem from the get-go here is that the bill seeks a positive understanding rather than an informed one. Hence, it would require teachers to impart “an understanding of the mandate of the British government that required slavery in the colonies and the actions of various Founders who always opposed slavery, as well as early civic and religious movements to end slavery, and the self-correcting constitutional language the Founders included to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery….”

This item is particularly distressing because it suggests first of all that the sponsors of this bill are themselves poorly informed of the history of their own state. If there was a British “mandate” requiring slavery in the colonies, how was it that in 1735 the House of Commons passed a resolution affirming the initial decision of Georgia’s Trustees to ban slavery in the colony? Likewise, the “self-correcting constitutional language” supposedly drafted by the Founders “to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery” actually applied not to slavery itself, but to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” i.e., the international slave trade, and even then it prevented Congress from taking action against that trade for the next 20 years.

President Thomas Jefferson supported the act of Congress that forbade further international commerce in human property after 1808, but for all his public display of angst over the issue, like several of the other founding fathers who are described in SB 426 as “always opposed to slavery,” he proved extremely reluctant to free more than a few of his own bondsmen. Ironically, in combination with the rising demand for labor sparked by the introduction of the cotton gin in 1793, the ban on further importation of Africans actually helped to boost slave prices, thereby proving quite the financial boon for Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and other slave-holding presidents and prominent statesmen.

The proposed bill’s off-kilter references to slavery barely scratch the surface in revealing its manifold inaccuracies and unsubstantiated generalizations about the often complex and by no means consistently orthodox attitudes of our early leaders toward religion, “free enterprise,” and the “democratic process.” There is also reason for concern in its rigidly prescribed, severely front-loaded version of American history, which leans so heavily on the first six presidential administrations that only two of the documents it stipulates for inclusion in the accepted curriculum appear to bear directly on events that transpired after 1832. There is also the provision that “instruction, activities, and curricula in United States history, particularly in the high school curriculum, shall be taught chronologically….” History is more than a mere succession of events. It typically happens across broad expanses of time and not necessarily in linear fashion. Students may like the idea of simply memorizing the main events of each year from 1776 to 1787, but such an approach promises little in the way of a comprehensive understanding of developments such as “growing dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation,” a mandated point of emphasis in SB 426.

The framers came up with a pretty remarkable document in 1787, but surely not even their most ardent admirers could credibly contend that either they or the words they put to page actually anticipated the many roadblocks and circuitous detours that our nation would encounter on its way to where we are now, any more than the most prescient currently among us, Newt Gingrich included, have the faintest clue about what things will be like in the year 2237. Regardless of whether it best serves the agenda of Glenn Beck or Jesse Jackson, to institutionalize such a narrowly constructed narrative of the past based on such a heavily ideologized assessment of the needs of the present is to encumber future generations with a version of history that they may hardly recognize, much less find instructive.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

86 comments Add your comment

egads

March 1st, 2012
4:34 am

egads…slavery was mandated by the British?
The British MADE us do it. It’s not our fault. We would have never had slaves if those nasty British wouldn’t have forced us to do it….
If that is so then….
How is it that after we freed ourselves from the British in th 1700s we still had slaves in the US 100 years later? hmmmmmm….how is that possible? Did the tea party think on that one? So sad. Trouble is, there are many who will gobble this up because that’s what they want to believe.
It reminds me of the teaching scandal here at APS. The teachers wouldn’t have cheated. They are all honest and good citizens..it’s the parents and students and administrator’s fault. They mandated it…

Yeah. Right.
GM

d

March 1st, 2012
5:39 am

I am a Social Studies teacher, I have seen the legislation – it is 16 pages long…. do the sponsors realize exactly what they would be doing to us by passing this legislation? Not only are we getting a one-sided view of history, but simply the amount of time spent on this would make it nearly impossible to finish the curriculum in any of the affected courses. Think about it this way, we already have over 20 standards in every Social Studies course at the high school level, but compare that to, for example Science, where every course has on average 10-12. We really need the General Assembly to stay out of curriculum and let people who actually have to implement this type of stuff be in charge of developing curriculum for the state.

crankee_yankee

March 1st, 2012
5:41 am

I’m confused, it it 1984 or 2012?

Peter Smagorinsky

March 1st, 2012
5:54 am

Who needs history, when we’ve got such uplifting mythology?

redweather

March 1st, 2012
6:12 am

I notice one of the bill’s sponsors is Chip Rogers. He must be taking the Koolaid intravenously these days.

Veritas Vincit

March 1st, 2012
6:35 am

The good Dr. Smagorinsky has a great point. We need to be honest with our students so that they can truly learn from history and not have a skewed belief in what happened. Yes, there have been both good and bad things in this great nation’s past. It should all be acknowledged and learned from for it is the truth. To the six sponsors of the bill, who did you gain input from in the field of education to draft this 16 page document?

The Red Coats are the Mean ones

March 1st, 2012
6:41 am

The Red Coats are the mean ones, yes the British made us do it. They made us have slaves. Good thing our tea party historian cleared that up for us. The earth is also flat and moon is made of cheese. I sure do hope the tea party historian fixes the misconceptions our there that earth is round and teh moon is made of dust. I am so tired of those liberal liars.
GM

DeborahinAthens

March 1st, 2012
6:56 am

Gotta love our “representatives”. With all the problems we have in this state, they just passed “the fetal pain bill” against recommendations of ob-gyn doctors, they went back and tried to re-write a law that was thrown out of court so they can throw people into jail that are trying to help people living in agony die with dignity. Now they want to re-write history. Meanwhile, we need water legislation, we need some way to fix transportation, we need to get the port in Savannah deepened,- the list goes on…and, as I understand it, they are only in session 44 days. When will the idiots in this state stop re-electing these stupid, stupid people?

teacher&mom

March 1st, 2012
6:57 am

A wake-up call is needed across Georgia.

Please Vote Responsibly

NGG

March 1st, 2012
7:05 am

What is taught in schools today is nothing close to the truth in history. When I read about our Founders in their own words and accounts of what happened back in those days, it bears very little resemblance to the false narrative I was taught in schools. I like this bill…it restores all of the history cut out by liberal revisionists who don’t want American children to know the truth and who want children to grow up thinking they need the government to provide everything from food to health care at the expense of the “rich”. I find it appalling that we were taught about the Declaration and Constitution, but didn’t actually study the documents in their entirety. I have never read the Articles of Confederation, just heard how it didn’t work. This bill includes using primary source documents to teach history. What do we have to fear about that?

outsider

March 1st, 2012
7:14 am

NGG: You just made Cobb’s point. You so very clearly have a political axe to grind.

AHE

March 1st, 2012
7:19 am

Yes, God–whoops, sorry, Marx–forbid that American history should ever be considered positive. Don’t all you bitter clingers understand that the US is the most evilracisthomophbicconservative regime in history?

Now shut up and do as you’re told. After all, if Maureen’s buddies aren’t allowed free reign to whiz all over your values in the classroom, your kids might not vote for Democrats, and that would be the end of their phony-baloney jobs…

Sarah

March 1st, 2012
7:23 am

Jimmy Cobb is a smart man, and a respected scholar.
If he were a conservative Maureen would have been sure to label him that way. Maybe she would have added the “controversial” label too.

Dr. Proud Black Man

March 1st, 2012
7:26 am

“When will the idiots in this state stop re-electing these stupid, stupid people?”

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

concerned scientist

March 1st, 2012
7:27 am

For the teacher worried about the sheer volume versus the actual nature of what is being proposed, would you care so much if it was just one page? It is appalling that this is being even contemplated let alone 16 pages of the manure created. It would be appalling if this lens was applied to science as well as social studies or any other educational discipline.

Atlanta Mom

March 1st, 2012
8:05 am

I think we need to shorten the legislation session to 4 days. Clearly these people have nothing better to do.

Happy Kine and The Mirth Makers

March 1st, 2012
8:11 am

Yet another storm in a teacup by those wanting to wallow in the past.

Get a job, make some money, get a spouse, be happy or be miserable.

Its your choice.

Happy Kine and The Mirth Makers

March 1st, 2012
8:12 am

“Please Vote Responsibly”

Agreed…Vote REPUBLICAN!!

carlosgvv

March 1st, 2012
8:12 am

Senate bill 426 is sponsored by those with the same mindset as Communists in the Soviet Union era who continually “revised” Russian history to suit their police state dogma. Republicans are certainly showing their true colors these days, displaying fear, hatred and contempt towards women and attempting to re-write history to show equal feelings for blacks.

AlreadySheared

March 1st, 2012
8:18 am

“Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.”
Mark Twain

Why mess up history with anything other than the fascinating real story?

Michael Moore

March 1st, 2012
8:20 am

As a college professor it automatically makes me a liberal. This is a step up for college professors because it seems only yesterday we were all communists.

Really?

March 1st, 2012
8:27 am

yes, vote republican so we can have more bills like the one they proposed (and I think passed last year) that it would be illegal to put a computer chip in our brains to try control us (really.. this was proposed by two republicans and at least one if not two had a first name of Chip, ironically. Yes, vote republican because clearly they are the insightful ones…. really???

Former Middle School Teacher

March 1st, 2012
8:29 am

Are they going to take Jefferson out like they did in Texas? I mean Mary Kay is much more important.

lucybee

March 1st, 2012
8:30 am

I think the bill is nothing but political posturing, and agree with “d” that the legislature needs to stop fiddling with curriculum. HOWEVER, I did look at the blog Maureen linked, and Cobb makes no secret that he despises Republicans/conservatives. So I question whether his analysis of a Republican-sponsored bill can add anything to the conversation. I’d love to hear from more teachers, not more commentators with political points to make.

Heika

March 1st, 2012
8:42 am

@Michael Moore “Liberal” is the new communist, so it’s not necessarily a step up in Tea Party Land.

world we live in, in cobb

March 1st, 2012
8:44 am

Again, people who know nothing about educational principles, theories, or actual interaction with students, making mandates to be followed “by law”. When will they learn to mind their own business and tackle only those things that they have knowledge about?

God Bless the Teacher!

March 1st, 2012
8:46 am

Increase the number of standards? I’m glad some other content area is getting on the same train ride as math teachers. We could use some company. However, it’s sad to see the Republican juggernaut trying to force MORE government intrusion on us. Whatever happened to their mantra about more local (i.e., school district) control?

WAR

March 1st, 2012
8:49 am

justify slavery then justify the holocaust.

skipper

March 1st, 2012
8:52 am

A hard problem to solve; I am a history major, and what is in todays textbooks is a far cry from the truth in many cases……and some (not all, but some) of the areas that are concentrated on, or more or less bally-hooed, have little significance but have been inserted to cover everyone’s feelings. No doubt that all angles need to be explored, but many major historical events have been trivialized and many other not so significant events have been pushed to the forefront when in fact they had little (or hardly ANY) relevance. Tough situation here…….

Happy Kine and The Mirth Makers

March 1st, 2012
9:13 am

skipper

March 1st, 2012
8:52 am

Touche’

Dr. Annette Laing

March 1st, 2012
9:17 am

I am a professional historian (formerly professor of early American history at Georgia Southern University), who resigned her academic post four years ago to write and present on history for children. I am absolutely appalled by this bill. Until politicians realize that what they learned in elementary school isn’t a truth that somehow must be defended from facts, Georgia will continue to struggle to be taken seriously, something that has grave implications for our economic future. History is about dealing with the evidence, no matter how unsettled those facts may make us, regardless of our political persuasion. Lying about the past is unethical and despicable, and that is hardly a lesson we would wish to impart to children.

Batgirl

March 1st, 2012
9:25 am

My 18th century ancestors had slaves, but by the Civil War we were poor dirt farmers. I always thought that it was because great-great-great-great-great-granny had twenty-two kids that we became too poor to own slaves or just didn’t need them anymore. I now know that it was the Brits who forced us to have slaves. I feel so much better about myself. Now if the legislature would only find a way to sanitize the fact that my 19th century ancestors came to northwest Georgia just after the Trail of Tears, my self esteem would be completely restored.

Teacher Reader

March 1st, 2012
9:36 am

@ Skippper: Couldn’t agree more!!!

Wonder when parents will wake up and realize that their children are being indoctrinated and not being given the truth? Maybe when they realize that the media no longer just publishes the facts in the articles that they report on.

Atlanta Mom

March 1st, 2012
9:42 am

Charter school advocates–are your schools bound by such foolishness? If not, I might could be convinced they aren’t such bad things.

Teacher Reader

March 1st, 2012
9:58 am

Atlanta Mom, Charter schools are public schools, so yes they are subjected to this. But you are really missing a bigger picture. YOUR CHILD IS NOT LEARNING REAL, UNBIASED HISTORY NOW!!

Learn History or Be History

March 1st, 2012
9:58 am

Looks and sounds a lot like the Texas Board of Education fiasco when the right version of history was imposed upon students and teachers. Social Studies teachers need to contact their state senator and ask them to vote NO on SB 426. You will have enough to do with the Common Core Curriculum and a proper uncovering on the 25 standards and 100 plus elements in the current curriculum, not mention Career Pathways. Changes in curriculum will require changes in the EOCT (costing more money). Keep the amateurs away from curriculum before we end up with a bigger mess.

Natasha

March 1st, 2012
10:00 am

And yet we wonder why GA’s kids are ill prepared for college.

Moving Fast - right out of here

March 1st, 2012
10:06 am

I am sure the scholarly folks down at the Georgia Dome have their reasons for cleaning our history of any poor judgments or dastardly deeds. I am sure that by re-writing our history books that our future problems regarding the economy, the deterioration of our infrastructure, the low literacy rate in Georgia and many other economic problems will be improved. I just want to know when they will add the second star to the right and pixie dust to the science curriculum to make Peter Pan happy?

Shar

March 1st, 2012
10:20 am

This, in concert with the charter school amendment bill and the bill to allow religious teaching in schools, is indeed a naked attempt to take local money to open state-sponsored schools teaching what the sponsors wish were true. Not with my tax money, you won’t.

“Those who do not learn from the past are bound to repeat it.” Often, the most important lessons are the ones we learn from past mistakes. The world mandated that the mistakes made in Germany and Japan that led to WWII be taught to all schoolchildren in those countries; Germany has embraced that requirement and is constantly aware and on guard against fascist tendencies while Japan is still fighting not to have to admit past atrocities, is still having their textbooks reviewed by the UN for lies about the country’s role in the war and is still having political fights over attempts to reinstate state-sponsored racism and fascism.

This stuff matters. Concerned scientist is right – first religion and history, then restricting all literature to that which is politically favored and then an assault on the teaching of science. This is already happening in Texas, and now Georgia Republicans want to exercise that kind of thought control here, cosily funded by local money siphoned away from public schools and imposed from above whether local parents and boards want it or not. With no local accountability. Dr. Laing and others above are correct – this is despicable.

Jon Bryant

March 1st, 2012
10:26 am

Historians gather overwhelming amounts of primary evidence, sort and evaluate that evidence, and then build a story that best reflects the evidence. This is why it takes years for Historians to write books and why Historians in reviews and conferences discuss and debate those stories. Ideologues decide on the story and then force that story down others’ throats, the evidence be dammed. That only takes a few hours and some legislation. Please decide which is being done by this bill.

Like Batgirl, I can’t wait for the explanation of Indian removal, though perhaps that’s why most of the bill arguments end in 1832?

Ron F.

March 1st, 2012
10:27 am

To say they’re all about “smaller government” and lessening the intrusion of government into the lives of citizens, the Georgia Legislature sure does seem to be awfully concerned about everything and legislating everything but what will actually help the economy.

Winston

March 1st, 2012
10:33 am

Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

johnny too good

March 1st, 2012
10:39 am

History, like many things is open to interpretation, teachers should keep all biases and opinions out when teaching world history or us history. We shouldnt be tryin to brainwash the students into what we think. Give em the facts and let them decide

Lee

March 1st, 2012
10:44 am

Well, at least Cobb had the decency to name his blog appropriately – Cobbloviate indeed. To say that Cobb is a bit “full of himself” is an understatement. Holy cow.

The old adage about the “winners get to write the history books” is very true. And now, I would add that the prevalent political doctrine gets to choose as well. For the past 50 years, we have become increasingly infested with the politically correct dogma in the US and Western Europe.

In addition, much of modern history is gleaned from newspapers of the era. If anyone ever had first hand knowledge of an event and then saw that event reported in what passes for news, you realize the news media gets an awful lot wrong. But 100 years from now, some historian will take that news account as the Gospel truth.

That said, is this bill a good idea? Probably not, but at least some politicians are noticing what passes for history in today’s schools is often little more than propaganda.

roughrider

March 1st, 2012
10:46 am

If we keep heading down this road, we will end up like N. Korea and China, where the ” Great Leaders” have never done anything wrong.

William Casey

March 1st, 2012
10:48 am

American history is a fascinating subject which I taught for 31 years. This Bill will probably never see the light of day but the fact that it’s being considered is disheartening. Teachers being reduced to dispensers of pre-packaged drivel (liberal or conservative) is anathema. Who wants to do that? I always strove to teach my students that the great figures of American history were real human beings just as we are today rather than mythical Olympian figures. Real humans, rife with bias and pettiness, produced the U.S. Constitution. Amazing! In my class, the Anti-Federalists received a fair hearing. Even the British view of things 1763-1775 was presented. My own primary professor, J. David Griffin at West Georgia, taught me long ago that American history is a matter of interpretation and the search for truth is difficult. I’m grateful to be retired and not required to dispense pablum.

skipper

March 1st, 2012
10:50 am

@Lee,
kudos!!

Learn History or Be History

March 1st, 2012
10:57 am

@ William Casey J David Griffin–what a great teacher he was!

Brandy

March 1st, 2012
11:14 am

I’m completely confused as to the point of this legislation (beyond the obvious–indoctrination and/or creating an even less educated underclass) as we are supposed to be adopting the Common Core national standards. I guarantee you this drivel does not live up to the national standards and it sure as heck won’t lead to more Georgians in college.

Of course, this rewriting of history has been going on for a long time here in the South–anyone else remember “The War of Northern Aggression” as the Civil War was still being taught in Georgia Studies in the 1990s?