A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, March 19, 2010

Everything is bigger in Texas-- except the study of history....

unless you count the size of Mary Kay Ash's hair (and that's pronounced "hay-YUR" for my Yankee friends). Yes, the founder of Mary Kay cosmetics gets more mention than Thurgood Marshall or Cesar Chavez, neither one of whom was blessed with such a mane.

Why should we care? Well, as a born and bred Okie, I certainly enjoy it anytime the Lone Star State puts its overly large hoof in it, but that's just for amusement. In reality though, since Texas is one enormous textbook market that chooses textbooks on a state-wide basis, this impacts all of us who teach history, because their standards end up influencing the books all the rest of us use.

The story of the creation of these new standards for the state of Texas is actually pretty interesting.

Back in 2009 we got this statement from Texas conservatives on the existing state history standards. From the Dallas Morning News, dated July 9, 2009:
Civil rights leaders César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall – whose names appear on schools, libraries, streets and parks across the U.S. – are given too much attention in Texas social studies classes, conservatives advising the state on curriculum standards say.

"To have César Chávez listed next to Ben Franklin" – as in the current standards – "is ludicrous," wrote evangelical minister Peter Marshall, one of six experts advising the state as it develops new curriculum standards for social studies classes and textbooks. David Barton, president of Aledo-based WallBuilders, said in his review that Chávez, a Hispanic labor leader, "lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of so many others."

Marshall also questioned whether Thurgood Marshall, who argued the landmark case that resulted in school desegregation and was the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, should be presented to Texas students as an important historical figure. He wrote that the late justice is "not a strong enough example" of such a figure.

The recommendations are part of a long process as the State Board of Education prepares to write new social studies curriculum standards for public schools. Debate on the issue, which will also include questions of the role of religion in public life, could be as intense as that on new science standards that were adopted by the board in March, when evolution was a major flashpoint.

The social studies requirements will remain in place for the next decade, dictating what is taught in government, history and other social studies classes in all elementary and secondary schools. The standards also will be used to write textbooks and develop state tests for students.

Although the actual standards are being drafted by teams of teachers, academics and community representatives, the education board appointed a panel of six experts to help guide the writing teams. Three of the experts, including Barton and Marshall, were appointed by Republican social conservatives on the board, while the other three experts – all professors at state universities in Texas – were appointed by the remaining Republicans and Democrats on the 15-member board.

Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that has battled social conservatives on education issues, questioned the academic credentials of Barton and Marshall, and said their negative comments on Chávez are just the start of a "blacklist" of historical figures considered objectionable by social conservatives....

In his report, Marshall, president of Peter Marshall Ministries in Massachusetts, contended that students in government classes must focus on the historic Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion rights, "which has arguably more impacted American life than any other Supreme Court decision in the 20th century." Marshall strongly opposes the ruling.

Barton, a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said that because the U.S. is a republic rather than a democracy, the proper adjective for identifying U.S. values and processes should be "republican" rather than "democratic." That means social studies books should discuss "republican" values in the U.S., his report said.

Both Barton and Marshall also singled out as overrated Anne Hutchinson, a New England pioneer and early advocate of women's rights and religious freedom, who was tried and banished from her Puritan colony in Massachusetts because of her nontraditional views.

"She was certainly not a significant colonial leader, and didn't accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble," Marshall wrote.

"Anne Hutchinson does not belong in the company of these eminent gentlemen," he said, referring to colonial leaders William Penn, Roger Williams and others. Williams later invited Hutchinson to help establish a colony in what became Rhode Island.

I find the arguments about the use of the terms "republican" and "democratic" about as logical as Glenn Beck's recent claims that support of social justice in churches is a sign of Nazism and Socialism (opposite sides of the political spectrum and both atheistic, there, Mr. Crybaby-who-posed-for-the-cover-of-one-of-his-books-in-a-Nazi-looking-uniform). These words were used LONG before they were the adopted monikers of political parties, people, and both the Democratic and Republican parties have shifted leftward and rightward in their long histories. I wouldn't be so quick to assume that the word "republic" is morally superior to "democracy," either-- let's remember that the "R" in USSR stood for "republic" (not to mention the "People's Republic of China") and that Adolph Hitler was democratically elected to be chancellor of Germany. Republics and democracies are only as good or as evil as the people who support them.

Which would be why I believe that the teaching of history without blatant political bias is so vitally important.

So our story moves to January 15th of this year. From the Houston Chronicle, we had this report, with a nice crack about skin color thrown in for fun:
Conservative rallying points like the Heritage Foundation, Moral Majority and National Rifle Association made it into a preliminary set of new curriculum standards for Texas public school students, but an effort to include other groups in the political arena — like ones that fight discrimination — failed Friday, causing some to question the effect of the partisan balance on the State Board of Education.

After two days of wrestling over what to teach lower grades, the board postponed a first-round vote until March because it could not finish a review of proposed social studies standards for high school students. The March vote will produce curriculum standards for a public hearing in May, when final action is expected.

Postponement will mean controversial votes on the standards covering history, government, geography and economics will occur after the March primaries. Four of the board members, who are elected, are fighting challenges in their own parties.

So far, conservative groups are generally pleased with the early look at the new standards that will influence a decade of school textbooks for more than 4.7 million Texas public school children.

“The reality is history has not changed. The religious heritage of our country has not changed,” said Jonathan Saenz of the Texas Free Market Foundation. “Major victories were corrections that the State Board of Education made to huge mistakes that the (expert) writing teams made.”

The board restored Christmas as an example of a significant religious celebration, overturning a much-criticized expert recommendation, and explorer Christopher Columbus is slated for more mention than businesswoman Mary Kay Ash.

Member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, was not happy after colleagues rejected her amendment that would have exposed students to the historic significance of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, League of United Latin American Citizens, GI Forum and Raza Unida.

“That was very upsetting. They obviously had the votes, so even if I protested, it wasn't going to do much good,” Berlanga said later. “It is very obvious that they were carrying forward a political agenda.”

Republicans dominate the board, 10-5.

Berlanga accused some of her Republican colleagues of being narrow-minded.

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, a leader of the board's seven social conservative members, considered Berlanga's accusation sour grapes.

“If Ms. Berlanga, whose only criteria is skin color, had the votes, she would name us ‘the Hispanic Education Agency,'” Bradley said.


How what does a respected historian have to say on the issue? Here is an essay by noted historian of Reconstruction (and textbook author of Give Me Liberty! Eric Foner:
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 non-citizens 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.

The upshot? If textbook manufacturers hope to capture the Texas market, they will conform to these standards. Which means that is what all the rest of us will get, as well.

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At 3/19/10, 3:31 AM, Blogger Ricochet said...


Parents and teachers around the country need to start preparing to supplement history lessons.

At 3/19/10, 6:00 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chili said...

I am having a REALLY hard time swallowing this. Where are the sane voices in this conversation? I'm so sorry, but having to bow to the nutjobs in Texas makes my stomach turn.

At 3/19/10, 6:02 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chili said...

Oh, and another thing... given the wonders of modern publication technology, what's to keep individual states from customizing their own textbooks? Cutting, pasting, and general revision is a pretty simple thing to do nowadays; who says we HAVE to take was Texas gives us?

At 3/19/10, 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this, it is no wonder that Homeschooling is on the rise.

At 3/19/10, 12:33 PM, Anonymous Dot said...

And that, in a nutshell, is why I home-educate.

At 3/19/10, 5:32 PM, Blogger kherbert said...

Personally I think this is Perry's attempt to get us kicked out of the Union.

SBOE needs to be recalled - we are working on it.

At 3/19/10, 8:26 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

Makes me sick, it does. I certainly have my own biases, but I try to leave them out of the classroom.

Maybe 1984 needs to be reissued as 2014.

At 3/28/10, 9:16 AM, Blogger Mr. Duez said...

As a Texas World History teacher I am not troubled by this in the least. I teach History, not a bunch of standards that people in Austin try to force down our throats.

Part of teaching history (at least at the high school level) is helping kids determine point of view, bias, and slant. Obviously I will try to show as many viewpoints on topics as possible. Eliminating people from a curriculum listing doesn't eliminate them from a possible lesson.

That's where I think people take this a little too far (and I'm a pretty liberal guy). My biggest problem with the new standards is that there are too damn many of them. They should limit the scope and focus it on the most important information, knowledge and skills. Then obviously expect more to be taught than just the bare minimum.

If you look at european and asian learning standards & curriculum, they are so small and more limited in comparison. This is a lesson we could learn from them.


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