The Perils of State Curricula
As many of you are probably aware, the Texas State Board of Education voted on Friday to make a number of changes to the state’s social studies standards. A few of these changes are mildly positive, and some are fairly innocuous, but most are are actively detrimental to the education of students who will be forced to study them — which will almost assuredly include students across the country. This ripple effect can probably be attributed to Texas’ oversized influence in the textbook market, which makes it impossible to turn a profit on any textbook that does not meet Texas’ standards. Here are some of the lowlights from the changes:
– A reduced scope for Latino history and culture. A proposal to expand such material in recognition of Texas’ rapidly growing Hispanic population was defeated in last week’s meetings—provoking one board member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out in protest. “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist,” she said of her conservative colleagues on the board. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”
– Changes in specific terminology. Terms that the board’s conservative majority felt were ideologically loaded are being retired. Hence, “imperialism” as a characterization of America’s modern rise to world power is giving way to “expansionism,” and “capitalism” is being dropped in economic material, in favor of the more positive expression “free market.” (The new recommendations stress the need for favorable depictions of America’s economic superiority across the board.)
– A more positive portrayal of Cold War anticommunism. Disgraced anticommunist crusader Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator censured by the Senate for his aggressive targeting of individual citizens and their civil liberties on the basis of their purported ties to the Communist Party, comes in for partial rehabilitation. The board recommends that textbooks refer to documents published since McCarthy’s death and the fall of the Soviet bloc that appear to show expansive Soviet designs to undermine the U.S. government. […]
– Thomas Jefferson no longer included among writers influencing the nation’s intellectual origins. Jefferson, a deist who helped pioneer the legal theory of the separation of church and state, is not a model founder in the board’s judgment. Among the intellectual forerunners to be highlighted in Jefferson’s place: medieval Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, Puritan theologian John Calvin and conservative British law scholar William Blackstone. Heavy emphasis is also to be placed on the founding fathers having been guided by strict Christian beliefs.
There is so much to unpack here that I could never do it all justice in a blog post, but here are a few brief criticisms from this former high school social studies teacher:
- While I’m certainly not one to push for highlighting the roles of minorities simply because they are minorities, Latinos have done a great deal to shape the history and culture of Texas. It is arguably the confluence between the Mexican and U.S. cultures that so defines the American West and Southwest, and makes Texas so unique, but apparently the Texas State Board of Education would rather not discuss half of that equation.
- The changes in terminology are deliberately meant to whitewash American history. As much as the conservative board members may not like it (or don’t even want to admit it), Americans and the American government have engaged in plenty of bad behavior over the years, and to act like none of that happened is no different in principle than a German nationalist denying the Holocaust in order to avoid dragging his country’s name through the mud. Furthermore, speaking as a strong advocate of free markets, I would prefer that they not use that term for the corporatist shenanigans executed throughout this country’s history; I have reservations about using the term “capitalism” for them as well, but that term has more traditionally implied some kind of government favoritism than “free market” has, so I still prefer the old standard to the change.
- There is certainly nothing wrong with pointing out that there were a number of active Communists within the government and other high echelons of American society during the Cold War. However, that does not make Joe McCarthy’s wilder claims any more accurate, or the Hollywood witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee any more justifiable.
- Removing Jefferson from the account of this country’s historical origins is absolutely unforgivable. I can only think of two other founders whose intellectual influence is as profound as Jefferson’s — Hamilton and Madison — and Madison arguably changed his own position between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian thought over the course of his life. What’s worse is that the board has replaced one of our country’s intellectual giants with a grab bag of European historical figures. Blackstone is appropriate enough, but what in God’s name is Saint Thomas Aquinas — a medieval Catholic philosopher — doing on a set of standards about the Enlightenment intellectual origins of an almost entirely Protestant country? (I realize Thomas contributed mightily to the natural law tradition, which gives rise to philosophies of natural rights, but that should be studied as part of a section on the Middle Ages, not the Enlightenment.) Like Syme in 1984, the Texas State Board of Education has made Thomas Jefferson an unperson, disappeared down the memory hole.
The problem here is not so much the specific politics of the Texas State Board of Education, although I do find those objectionable. We have seen this same phenomenon from the other side, with demands for more politically correct textbooks in California. The root problem is that any one institution has this much power over education. In more market-driven school systems, standards would be set not from bureaucrats on high but through the interplay of scholarship and consumer demand. Certainly, some parents would still demand slanted views of history, but at least they would not be the only views available. If we want the study of history at the elementary and secondary levels to be something more than a political football, we must recognize that government monopolies, by nature, tend to strangle dissenting views.
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