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.

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