What Is True/Slant?
275+ knowledgeable contributors.
Reporting and insight on news of the moment.
Follow them and join the news conversation.

Mar. 16 2010 - 6:16 pm | 12,851 views | 2 recommendations | 21 comments

The Texas Textbook Controversy and the Failing American Consensus

I find it ironic that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is the reigning box office champion at this particular moment in time, just as the nation’s public schools are about to fall down a rabbit hole from which it may be impossible to climb out.

If you haven’t been keeping up, last Friday the Texas State Board of Education approved sweeping and controversial changes to the history, economic and social studies textbooks used in the public schools. As has been documented in both the Washington Monthly and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the alterations would, in effect, rewrite significant portions of American history. This has the potential to affect virtually every school in the country because Texas buys so many textbooks that most other localities end up using whatever they purchase. Here’s a sampling of the proposed changes:

Excision of recent third-party presidential candidates Ralph Nader (from the left) and Ross Perot(from the centrist Reform Party). Meanwhile, the recommendations include an entry listing Confederate General Stonewall Jackson as a role model for effective leadership, and a statement from Confederate President Jefferson Davis accompanying a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Language that qualifies the legacy of 1960s liberalism. Great Society programs such as Title IX—which provides for equal gender access to educational resources—and affirmative action, intended to remedy historic workplace discrimination against African-Americans, are said to have created adverse “unintended consequences” in the curriculum’s preferred language.

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.”

I take particular offense at that last one as a graduate of the university Thomas Jefferson founded, but let’s get real: how can you effectively tell the story of the United States of America without talking about the man who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and who wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom? What greater good is being served by striking Ralph Nader and Ross Perot’s presidential runs from memory? What are these so-called “unintended consequences” of 1960s liberalism? That minorities and women became full members of society?

Simply making the argument that “academia is skewed too far to the left,” as Don McElroy, leader of the conservative faction on the board does, is not enough. I want someone to explain why a nine term U.S. senator, who, despite his personal failings, is considered to be one of the greatest legislators of all time, be written out of history in favor of, say, Phyllis Schlafly.

And in a move that just reeks of a certain sort of cultural superiority, the board decided to reduce the role of Latinos in American history. That move lead Mary Helen Berlanga, another board member, to walk out of the meeting. “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.”

To some extent, this is to be expected. It’s long been an article of faith in some conservative circles that liberals use the public education system to indoctrinate the nation’s youth (even though studies reveal that the professoriate, while leaning left, does a good job of just teaching), so if you believe that’s the case, you can probably do one of two things. The first would be to try to load up the ranks of teachers and professors with more conservatives. There’s often a belief that these professions are hostile to conservatives, but I would direct readers here (for a discussion of the prospects of academic conservatives) and here (for a somewhat related discussion about conservative journalists). Draw your own conclusions after working through those pieces.

Choice two, which is a clumsy, if more efficient and effective method, would be to work the refs. However, what the Texas Board of Ed. did equates to more than merely working the refs; it’s clubbing the ref over the head in the parking lot with a baseball bat, tossing him in his trunk, taking his uniform, putting it on, then going in to the game and ensuring the home team gets all the calls.

This entire episode is just the latest example of the fracturing of whatever fragile public consensus once existed about our shared history. Farhad Manjoo, who writes about technology for Slate, tackled this dynamic in his book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society:

In the last few years, pollsters and political researchers have begun to document a fundamental shift in the way Americans are thinking about the news. No longer are we merely holding opinions different from one another; we’re also holding different facts. Increasingly, our arguments aren’t over what we should be doing – in the Iraq War, in the war on terrorism, on global warming, or about any number of controversial subjects- but, instead, over what is happening. Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization; now, as I’ll document, the creeping partisanship has began to distort our very perceptions about what is “real” and what isn’t. Indeed, you can go so far as to say we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built of our own facts.

Though Manjoo was writing about news consumption, nothing in that paragraph is wrong as it applies to this controversy. We’re simply living and operating at a time when even observable facts don’t seem to matter if they fail to comport with a particular worldview.

I’m actually at a loss about what can be done about this kind of thing. Home schooling seems a weak countermeasure. I suppose that educators and parents in Texas who oppose the new textbooks can protest and challenge the new textbooks, but I don’t see much hope for that to work either. From what I gather, the governor appoints the members of the board, so winning the statehouse would be another, more drastic measure. (Also does it make sense that only four of the 15 board members have a teaching background?)

In any case, if you meet anyone of secondary school age a few years from now and they tell you that William F. Buckley was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement, don’t be surprised. They’ll just tell you they learned about it in their textbooks.


Active Conversation
21 Total Comments
Post your comment »
  1. collapse expand

    I’m not sure what can be done about it either. But I do know that there is a reason why schooling professoriate leans left and it’s because the liberal mindset is more accommodating and openminded to differing points of view. When the right aligns itself to religion, as it has done for the past decade, it becomes a theocracy. This is abhorrent to old school conservatives like Buckley, because instead of holding the rule of law as their highest principle, they substitute their religion. In other words, the truth is governed by faith and reason has no say.

    Once this occurs, it becomes trivial ignore facts, history, and even in some cases our body of law. The only good news is that devotees of this sort of extreme theocratic politics is not that large so as they overstep their bounds, one hopes the larger more rational electorate self-corrects. One nice thing about information today is that it is much more free than it used to be, so even if facts are omitted, people have access. The other bit is that even though some board may be able to dictate a given set of facts, it’s not like the all these decent teachers have a theocratic switch in their heads. “Oh, Jefferson sucks now? Okay sure thing!” Good luck with that Texas. . .

    • collapse expand

      Unfortunately, this is just evidence of the rise of the conservative monoculture. With all this information, there’s no longer any need to go to a source that might present reality in a way that doesn’t fit your preconceived narrative. They’ll just watch Fox News and visit wnd.com, redstate.com, biggovernment.com, etc., which are all pre-filtered information dumps that align with their view of reality. It’s now possible to live your life (particularly in some states) without encountering a single well presented opinion contrary to your own.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Home schooling may be the ONLY short term solution. I did it with my daughter so she could actually learn things like evolutionary biology and all those other subjects so feared by the religious conservatives in this country. And she just scored a 29 on her first crack to the ACT. Thanks goodness for the internet and freely available educational material. I like Frank Zappa’s quote on the matter of education…’If you want to get laid go to college. If you want an education go to the library.’

  3. collapse expand

    I think the whole thing’s organic- a force of human nature with volition unencumbered by things like elections and academic consensus. I’m referring to what has happened as opposed to what can be done.

    The anti-intellectual cult of Reagan where facts are merely what we’d like them to be has now given us the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the texan textbooks and Scott Brown.

    I think a lot of people confuse the election of Barrack Obama with a rejection of the Reagan cult’s agenda, (American exceptionalism, corporatism and a permanent state of war or emergency. But well-heeled social movements like the one that gave us the Project for a new American century and “welfare reform,” do not abide by electoral calendars.

    And my guess is Ronny would by enchanted with Bam.

    The boomer’s extinguished their marijuana cigarettes, became moralists and voted for zero tolerance drug laws and bought their four-year-olds cell phones. It’s not uncommon to hear someone that marched against Vietnam talk glowingly about our intentions in the Middle East…nation building through no-bid contracts and the like. In other words the hippies/clintons changed.

    But unlike most of the boomers, most of the tea baggers, neocons and conservatives will never change- even for the worse. They have only one gear- conquer. Anything else would deprive them of the illusion of their minority/victim status.

    As to what can be done, I think it’s simple. If you know someone that has or wants to have kids, and they’re not orly taitz crazy, advise them to leave the state.

    They have shitty barbecue anyway.

  4. collapse expand

    First off, Wahoo-Wah! I didn’t know there was another ‘Hoo on True/Slant.

    I wish I could give you a better solution for what you’ve identified as a pretty serious problem for the social sciences in the coming years but, you’re right, there really aren’t a lot.

    Texas’ enormous economic power is on the rise and as worrying as things are now, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. California is waning and textbook companies are going to write for the Texas BOE.

    I don’t see liberalizing Texas as a viable solution to this issue for a number of political reasons but perhaps most importantly because it’s the wrong way to go about solving the problem. Texas has power here because it’s the largest buyer of textbooks. No other state can match it alone which suggests to me that the North East needs to start considering the virtues of unified textbook selection.

    Because the alternative is that our kids, regardless of where we live, get “educated” in Texas.

  5. collapse expand

    I applaud your efforts to alert people to what is happening on the Texas State Board of Education. Effacement of history continues apace in the United States, and it is our collective responsibility as concerned citizens to prevent this from occurring.

    As a professor of English and film at Texas State University, I see the deterioration of our educational system firsthand. I am running for the State Board of Education in District 5, Texas, against Ken Mercer, one of the right-wing board members, to restore common sense to the process of educating young people in Texas.
    Extremist members of the elected, non-paid State Board of Education have hijacked textbook selection and curriculum requirements for future generations of Texas school children, censoring the information they receive in both subtle and blatant ways.

    In addition to rejecting Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to the constitutional separation of church and state, extremists on the Texas State Board have systematically censored other types of information as well, particularly in representation of minorities. Conservative board members complained that the review committee’s proposed curriculum included too many minorities and women.

    In spite of testimony from hundreds of citizens from all over the state requesting greater inclusion of Mexican Americans, Czechs, Sikhs, etc., in the curriculum, the board systematically rejected their inclusion with flimsy justifications. For example, the right-wing members of the board thwarted efforts of the Mexican American community to include Dolores Huerta in the curriculum, arguing that she was a bad role model because she was a socialist. Instead, the conservative board members substituted Helen Keller, either unaware that she was also a socialist or convinced that an Anglo socialist was not as objectionable as a Chicana socialist.

    The board also voted to censor distinctions between sex and gender, because, as one right-wing member explained, it might lead students to ask about “transvestites, transsexuals, and God knows what else.” In addition, the right-wing ideologues changed the language of the curriculum to eliminate any references to the word “democracy,” referring to the United States instead as a “representative republic” throughout the document. The list of words, phrases, concepts, and information censored and altered in the curriculum goes on and on.

    This controversy over social studies comes on the heels of the board’s earlier consideration of the science curriculum. In editing the requirements recommended by the review committee of teachers and scholars, conservatives insisted on inserting wording that depicted the theory of evolution as a somewhat inferior alternative to what they call the theory of “intelligent design.” Everyone likes intelligence, right? And “design” sounds like a good idea as well. Dr. David Hillis and other distinguished scientists testified before the board, trying to explain to them the importance of teaching real science, both for higher education and for the vitality of scientific careers that fuel the economy, but to no avail.

    A few years ago, on the night before the final vote on the English curriculum, conservatives on the board threw out two years of review committee work and substituted hastily crafted requirements designed to emphasize phonics, a method popular during the 1950s. This new curriculum also reduced the number of women and minority authors.

    Conservatives were able to pass the curriculum, a move that prompted protests from board and audience members. Right-wing board member Don Mercer later bragged in a San Antonio Express editorial that the teachers had received a “well deserved spanking.”

    As concerned citizens, we must resist such extreme partisan and ideological efforts to weaken the curriculum and brainwash our children. Such a huge number of sweeping changes and omissions cannot be justified by saying that this is simply a correction of the excessive influence of liberals on the curriculum. Let us hear more from the voices of reason, from people all over the nation who respect education, research, teachers, and common sense.

    I call on you to pay attention to what is happening to education in Texas, because it may happen in your state in the near future. It’s not too late to turn this trend around, but we must act now to marginalize political and ideological extremists and return the Texas State Board of Education to its proper mission of educating students.

    Rebecca Bell-Metereau
    Candidate for Texas State Board of Education District 5 Visit voterebecca.com

  6. collapse expand

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on this controversy yet! I too take particular offense to Thomas Jefferson’s maiming. I mean, he was author of the Declaration, State legislator, Governor of Virginia, Member of Congress, Minister to France (played a significant role in their own revolution), Secretary of State, Vice President, President, responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, founder of the University of Virginia, outspoken abolitionist, patron of the library of congress, established Westpoint Military academy…and this is the man they want to diminish? I feel like I’ve taken a crazy pill. And I’m bone-tired of these extreme partisan tactics. When will common sense and factual-based knowledge prevail?

  7. collapse expand

    Man, this is scary stuff. Love that Alice in Wonderland analogy. I was always under the illusion that history actually had some connection to what happened.

  8. collapse expand

    It’s true. This is a disaster, the effects of which could be far reaching and deleterious.
    Here’s a good piece I stumbled upon that rips the Texas BOE and the disaster they’re creating for future generations.

Log in for notification options
Comments RSS

Post Your Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment

Log in with your True/Slant account.

Previously logged in with Facebook?

Create an account to join True/Slant now.

Facebook users:
Create T/S account with Facebook

My T/S Activity Feed


    About Me

    I'm a native Virginian who adopted California (San Francisco, specifically) before moving to NYC last fall to become a master's candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

    I write, without much authority, about politics, media issues, culture, sports and anything else that comes to mind...

    See my profile »
    Followers: 31
    Contributor Since: April 2009
    Location:New York, NY