Loose Thoughts on the Texas School Book Controversy

I have followed the battle over Texan history textbooks with less passion than the topic probably deserves, partly because of some recent hitches in my own education and partly because of my general weariness with the infantile partisan bickering of which this controversy is a symptom. But I have read some articles and listened to some conversations on the subject, and am, I suppose, as qualified as anyone to offer an opinion. (As far as other opinions, I cannot recommend Dan Carlin’s latest podcast, which deals heavily with history education, strongly enough; and the degree to which my thoughts echo his is a reflection not of plagiarism but of a lesser mind thinking like a great one.)

  • The notion of “liberal” and “conservative” history is and is not a valid one, depending on what you mean by “history” Things, to say it frankly, happened; in many cases, we cannot deny what happened, however much our political worldview would like us to do so. Thus: The United States government made treaties with several Indian nations, and when it became advantageous for them to do so, the powers-that-be welshed on the deal. Thousands of Indians were killed; thousands more were displaced from their ancestral lands. These facts (the non-historian said) are not up for debate. A historian’s fundamental conservatism or liberalism comes in the interpretation of such facts, and in the inclusion of more disputed histories.
  • The dumbest possible route to presenting people–adults, high-school students or even eight-year-olds–with your political philosophy is to leave out huge chunks of the facts. The Texas controversy is full of examples, but the most notable and horrifying is the exclusion of Thomas Jefferson from the proposed textbooks, on the grounds that he advocated the separation of church and state (and his general status as a counterexample to the premise that the United States was at the time of the Revolution a Christian nation). Jefferson appears on the money, folks; do you think high schoolers are so stoned they won’t notice? (Uh…let me rephrase that.)
  • However much I may disagree with the premise that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation” in the sense suggested by Jerry Falwell, et al, if the textbooks these conservatives were proposing took account of the facts and then presented their political philosophy, I could probably sign off on them as intellectually honest, at least. As things stand, the proposed textbooks make as much sense as the Southern textbooks from half a century ago, which (supposedly) claimed that Reconstruction was mere Northern oppression without noting the things white Southerners did to prompt such aggression. (To the degree that modern books focus solely on the latter and ignore Northern abuses, they are also intellectually dishonest.)
  • What disturbs me most about this situation is the it is the members of the Texas Board of Education who are deciding what goes into these textbooks. No one on the Board of Education seems to have even the slightest qualification to decide on history standards. Nor do I, though I am halfway to a PhD in American literature and thus have probably had more academic training than the “history buff” dentist on the Board. But of course I am not trying to write a history textbook. Bring in some actual historians, people; Victor Davis Hansen probably agrees with your politics and can bring some credibility to your side of the debate.

Don’t expect this ugly and asinine debate to go away, incidentally. Once this textbook has been written, we will hear about more, as the masses get angrier and more polarized, spurred on by demagogues like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. The debate isn’t over education at all. Make no mistake, few people on either side care even a whit about education. It’s about ideology, which is the polar opposite of education, and ideology neither listens, learns, nor changes.

I invite, by the way, our readers with actual training in history to weigh in on this topic–I am very interested in what an informed opinion has to say.

6 thoughts on “Loose Thoughts on the Texas School Book Controversy

  1. I am going to let it all hang out on this topic. I think the real debate is about historiography. Not that you would ever hear the word at a school board meeting or in even in many classes. The basic assumption of most people is that history is about “important people.” So American history is about the presidents or the captains of industry or maybe certain clergymen. The story of America has traditionally been the history of a bunch of dead white people, with a few exceptions here and there. The related brand of history that the Texas School book revisors seem to be all about is the “great ideas” school of history. The great ideas are of course their particular religious and political philosophies. The implication is that liberal textbooks are revisionist history and have left the good stuff out. Needless to say the conservative textbook is also a revision of revisionist history.

    Let me be clear. I don’t think you can teach the history of the United States without leaving some stuff out. I understand that the anxiety that people have when they see that the history books have changed. The thing we need to realize is that history books are never going to be infallible. Human beings write history books and thus they are never complete or even altogether truthful. We need to teach kids to question the history book in a responsible way. I think this is where I am in line with some of the things Neil Postman has said about education. Anyway let me tell you some of the things I think history class should offer.

    1. It should deal with questions of historiography. What is history anyway? What has meant to write a history in other places and time periods? How did the Greeks and Romans write history? The Church in the Middle Ages? How do people in non-western cultures view history and time itself differently? What have been the traditional ways people in the United States have told their history? Things like divine providence, manifest destiny, the frontier thesis, etc. should be explained, questioned and discussed.

    2. Great (white) men/Great ideas. Our country was founded by Euro Americans who were products of the Enlightenment and Protestantism. I think that this has to be your pragmatic starting point. We should acknowledge the fact that much of our history has been defined by a small percentage of elites, what I call the movers and shakers. We should be critical of what these people wrote and what they did. If we’re critical we will probably find out that some of these ideas and men might not be so great. In what ways was Thomas Jefferson a great person? In what ways did he and the other founding fathers not live up to their ideals?

    3. Social history. What was it like to be a enslaved person? a woman? a child? Students should not just take the word of those in power. I think that story of non- EuroAmericans is just as important. The same goes for feminist history. The story of those who were not in power is just as important. Henry Ford said he treated his workers great, but did he? We should look for the voices of people who couldn’t write down their stories.

    4. Economic history. I think that the relationship of material goods and people are always interconnected. People like Adam Smith and Karl Marx need to be introduced. What have been the effects of the industrial revolution?

    I see history as a skill. It’s about being able to think, speak, and write in a disciplined way. It is a discipline that can easily be applied to other areas of life. Many successful people in the business world and other career fields are trained historians.

    Unlike these folks in Texas, I think U.S. History should not be about learning a certain canonical story. It should be a class in which the students core values and assumptions about his or her country are called into question. What really happened? What have our leaders claimed for this country and where have their actions been different than their rhetoric?

    1. Phil,

      The dialectical model of history education seems to me to be the right one, as well, though I must admit that I’m not sure we can count on either (a) high-school teachers to utilize it, since it requires more work than a simple lecture and transparency full of names; or (b) high-school students to take the effort to comprehend it. Dan Carlin, in that podcast I recommended, suggests we give every high-school history class a list of 600 names and tell them to do the research to make their OWN textbook. That strikes me as an excellent plan, at least in theory; again, I am pessimistic about how it would work out in practice.

      Those who know me will likely protest that I really believe in the “great ideas” approach, not the dialectical approach, but it seems to me that these are compatible, since we all have different ideas about what ideas are great.

      In the end, I wonder if we’re looking at something akin to the theory-led battles over the canon in the 1980s and ’90s, only from the other side.

  2. One point of correction. The new Texas history curriculum does not remove Jefferson completely, only from the list of thinkers who impacted political revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. He is still, as far as I’m aware, the third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

    This doesn’t absolve anyone involved in the stupid shenanigans that unfortunately make up the conversation about education in my home state, but I do think that some hysteria has overblown the ‘removal’ of Jefferson. He clearly was a thinker who influenced revolutions, but as far as I’m aware this is all that is being downplayed.

    Again, no absolution, only nuance.

    1. Cabe,

      Thank you for the clarification. Nuance is always good–as I implied at the end of the post, nuance is what separates ideology from education, or it’s one of the things, anyway.

  3. >(To the degree that modern books focus solely on the latter and ignore Northern abuses, they are also intellectually dishonest.)

    I do believe that I had a history textbook that talked about how not cruel Sherman’s march to the sea was.

    1. We were told (in the South, even) that Sherman’s march was awful but that he came down and helped rebuild. I’m not sure if that’s true or not–and if it is, I’m not sure the degree to which altruism as opposed to greed played a role.

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