Thursday, September 25, 2014

Texas Textbooks Redux

Texas is at it again - and now so is Colorado.

As you may recall, in 2010 the Texas State Board of Education decided to whitewash the high school history curriculum in their Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards. They sought to sanitize it of any non-conservative content i.e. anything that might reflect negatively on any dead white men. As I wrote in my book, their patriotic efforts got unpatriotic results:

The original curriculum asked students to “explain the impact of the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” But the new guidelines erased the words “Enlightenment” and “revolutions.” Moreover, they also dropped Thomas Jefferson in favor of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone. The only American political philosopher on the previous list was dumped to make room for two foreign theologians and a hardcore monarchist.

I am not kidding. In his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone wrote, “The king is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong; in him there is no folly or weakness.” So, the king is infallible, like the Pope? I am not sure how that qualifies Sir Blackstone as a revolutionary thinker. Oh, but wait, I forgot: the Lone Star State had dropped the word “revolution” too. Perhaps Texas will next replace their state song with “God Save the King.”

This week, Texas is back in the news on this issue for two reasons.

First, a panel of scholars recently looked into how the textbook industry has accommodated Texas so far. No serious historian was optimistic about the prognosis since the new curriculum's flaws were apparent from the start. Edward Countryman, one of the scholars on the panel, had recalled that the school board's fractious drafting process had brought Texas international ridicule. In fact, "When it was done, even the explicitly conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave TEKS a D, on the grounds that it amounted to political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity, and brute memorization."

As James W. Lowen explained in Lies My Teacher Told Me, Texas is a huge textbook market and accordingly has subtly dictated content for years because publishers are loathe to produce expensive separate editions. Likewise, when the Kansas State School Board passed new standards that mandated intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in 2005, it posed a huge potential headache for biology text book publishers. (This decision was reversed in 2007.) Texas creates the same complication with history texts.

But with TEKS, the former subtlety is gone. James W. Lowen had complained that textbooks were boring because they glossed over conflict and controversy, thereby alienating students from the subject of history. But TEKS attempts to shoehorn the Bible into the Constitution by requiring textbooks to reference the “laws of nature and nature’s God” when discussing political concepts. Summarizing, the panel's findings, Edward Countryman wrote, "We agreed on two big points. First, most of the publishers had tried hard to deal with the situation that TEKS presented. Second, however, dealing with TEKS at all means distortion, or worse."

Second, the Texas State Board of Education had also made news this week by opposing the College Board's national Advanced Placement U.S. History course and exam. High school students who do well on the test get college credit, but conservatives consider it to be rife with anti-American messages. Accordingly, Texas is expected to vote against teaching the College Board's course, although they will allow the students to take the exam using TEKS to prepare. As Talking Points Memo explained:

The controversy stems from the recent overhaul of the AP test, administered by the New Jersey-based College Board, that was meant to de-emphasize memorization. The new exam will be given for the first time in May and includes a lengthy framework to help teachers better-prepare students for the requirements.

Conservative activists, though, have decried the new course, the teachers' framework and even the exam itself as rife with liberal themes and focusing on the negative aspects of U.S. history. Some have even likened it to "mind control" engineered by the federal government.

Government mind control? Oh, the irony and lack of self-awareness.

Not to be outdone, the school board of Jefferson County, Colorado is trying its own hand at historical revisionism. They moved to remove all mentions of civil disobedience from texts and classroom materials intended for the teaching of AP U.S. history. Why? Because, as Raw Story explained:

The right-leaning board-members said they believe history teachers should teach nationalism, respect for authority and reverence for free markets. They should avoid teaching any historical events or acts that promote “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

It begs the question of how they would teach about our country's revolutionary origins. Of course, we already know the answer, because it is how American authoritarians have always taught it. As I wrote in my book:  

The conservative version of the American Revolution has no revolutionaries. Radicals were absent and nobody was ever rude, insolent, or disobedient. In their portrayal, people spoke a great deal about freedom but refrained from personally exercising any. In short, conservatives envision the revolutionaries using the word freedom as they do today – without really meaning it.

It is a longstanding problem that will probably always be with us. In a 1901 speech entitled "Training That Pays," American treasure Mark Twain expressed his contempt for this kind of indoctrination passed off as education that conservatives advocate. He spoke at meeting of the Male Teachers Association of the City of New York after New York Superintendent of Education Charles H. Skinner. Skinner gave a speech entitled "Patriotism for the Young." He advocated the new overseas imperialism that Mark Twain hated. Twain's classic rebuttal drew a stark line between patriotism and nationalism and remains relevant today: 

If patriotism had been taught in the schools years ago, the country would not be in the position it is in to-day. Mr. Skinner is better satisfied with the present conditions than I am. I would teach patriotism in the schools, and teach it this way: I would throw out the old maxim, ‘My country, right or wrong,’ etc., and instead I would say, ‘My country when she is right.’ Because patriotism is supporting your country all the time, but your government only when it deserves it. [emphasis original] 

So I would not take my patriotism from my neighbor or from Congress. I should teach the children in the schools that there are certain ideals, and one of them is that all men are created free and equal. Another that the proper government is that which exists by the consent of the governed. If Mr. Skinner and I had to take care of the public schools, I would raise up a lot of patriots who would get into trouble with his.

EDIT - 10/08/15:

And, flashing forward to the present day, here's a McGraw-Hill geography textbook actually calling slavery "immigration" and slaves "workers." I'd say the phrase "whitewash" was never so literal, but I imagine there are countless other equally apt examples.

Of course, it is the logical consequence of conservative thought. In a mirror incident, this Iowa talk radio host has suggested enslaving undocumented immigrants. This king-maker in the Party of  Lincoln actually asked “Well, what’s wrong with slavery?” Conservatives: Burying the Irony Meter on a daily basis.

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