Historians Protest As Texas History Rewrite Heads For Final Vote

Historians nationwide are expressing dismay over plans by the Texas State Board of Education to approve social studies standards that promote discredited “Christian nation” concepts and downplay minority contributions to America.

The board, which is stacked with Religious Right activists, attracted national attention earlier this year after it gave preliminary approval to a set of standards that downplay the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, extol capitalism and “American exceptionalism” and highlight the actions of modern conservatives while removing study of noted civil rights leaders.

According to The Washington Post, board member Don McLeroy summed up the board’s approach recently, telling a gathering of Tea Party activists, “Our students will be taught that this country was founded on biblical principles.”

The board’s actions are being interpreted as an effort to rewrite history more to the liking of religious conservatives. A growing number of historians is taking notice, just as biologists often speak out against creationism.

To Daniel Czitrom, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the Texas flap is familiar.

In 2002, Czitrom’s American history textbook titled Out of Many: A History of the American People was excluded for use in Texas ostensibly because of one section discussing prostitution on the Western frontier. The real reason, Czitrom said, is that his book was too honest in its discussion and failed to promote a simplistic view favored by conservatives.

“They want an American history that ignores or marginalizes African-Americans, women, Latinos, immigrants and popular culture,” Czitrom wrote in a column on CNN.com. “Rather than genuinely engaging the fundamental conflicts that have shaped our past, they prefer a celebratory history that denies those fundamental conflicts.”

Of the Texas board, Czitrom wrote, “Instead of acknowledging that genuine disagreements over interpretation and emphasis are the lifeblood of history, they reduce it all to a cartoonish process of correcting perceived ‘bias.’”

James McPherson, an award-winning historian who has authored several books on the Civil War era, also has criticized the Texas education board.

“One can only regret the conservative pressure groups and members of the Texas education board that have forced certain changes in high school history textbooks used in the state,” McPherson told a Washington Post education blog.

He added, “The Texas issue is of greater concern because the board prescribes the acceptable texts for every public school in the state, which not only muzzles school districts and teachers who might want to choose their own books, but also puts pressure on national textbook publishers because Texas is such a large market.”

Columbia University historian Eric Foner joined the criticism.

In a March 19 essay for The Nation, he said, “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.” 

The proposed standards, he said, “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.”

Concluded Foner, “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 board is scheduled to take a final vote on the standards this month. Although McLeroy lost his seat in a recent primary election, he will not leave the board until after November’s general election.

A more moderate board may be seated at that time, but it’s unclear if its members will re-open the discussion over social studies standards.