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.