March 15, 2010

On the Texas textbook controversy

So much has been made in the MSM of the Texas social studies textbook "controversy" the last few weeks. The Associated Press, to name just one, wrote that a "far-right faction wielded its power to shape the lessons." To be sure, some of the changes made caused a question mark to appear over my head (excising a reference about the US being founded on the principle of religious freedom, ditching Thomas Jefferson in referencing the Enlightenment); however, have you ever seen stories about textbooks changes garner so much attention ... when leftist groups are the most influential? Of course not. Unless you read conservative media.

Let's take a quick gander at what the AP wrote:

... it agreed to strengthen nods to Christianity by adding references to "laws of nature and nature's God" to a section in U.S. history that requires students to explain major political ideas.
They also agreed to strike the word "democratic" in references to the form of U.S. government, opting instead to call it a "constitutional republic."
Again, so?
In addition to learning the Bill of Rights, the board specified a reference to the Second Amendment right to bear arms in a section about citizenship in a U.S. government class and agreed to require economics students to "analyze the decline of the U.S. dollar including abandonment of the gold standard."
Once again -- so? Have you heard in the AP (or other MSM) any of the following instances?
An unelected review panel, not the elected members of Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), attempted to push through a number of highly questionable changes to the standards – removing Independence Day, Neil Armstrong, Daniel Boone, and Christopher Columbus – from them. They even dumped Christmas and replaced it with Diwali. You can’t make this stuff up! After a huge outcry from citizens and strong leadership by conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education, each of these changes was reversed.

Sadly, the attacks didn’t stop there. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison were removed from World History, yet Mary Kay and Wallace Amos (of Famous Amos Cookies) were added, it appears, for more “diversity.” That’s unbelievable. Edison is the greatest inventor in American history with over 1,000 patents; oh, and by the way, that Einstein guy was pretty successful too!

I didn't think so. And that's the point.

A decade ago several other teachers and myself formed a committee, supported by the Delaware Association of Scholars, to examine several American and world history texts. Addressing us at our inaugural meeting was Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council. Sewall was concerned about the mid-90s' proposal of American and world history standards that were, essentially, the reverse of the present-day [media] worry. (Back then, the MSM reaction was only conservatives' reaction about these proposals -- "They're only trying to get more diversity etc. etc. etc. into our texts which are long overdue ..." they clamored.) To note:

What the public and elected officials didn't like about these new standards was their failure to affirm or celebrate the nation or the Western tradition. Just the reverse. Like a muffled drum through the U.S. history standards, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, gay Americans, and women face and overcome centuries of oppression, neglect, and adversity. Students meet Speckled Snake and Dolores Huerta, Mahmud al-Kati and Madonna. These people were, according to the drift of the curriculum, the real American heroes. They and others replaced such white patriarchs as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, and Albert Einstein. The defining reform institutions of the future? Political phalanxes like La Raza Unida and the National Organization of Women.

The standards reinvented the European discovery of the New World, changing a once triumphal Columbian conquest into a three-way "encounter" of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. From the beginning, disease-carrying Europeans encounter and enslave innocent people of color. Older paradigms of federalism, industrialism, and expansionism were minimized, along with heroic figures and their achievements. Hamilton end Jefferson, the Erie Canal, Gettysburg, and Promontory Point did not exactly vanish, but they were not much savored either. Teachers and students inherited a solemn, often bitter chronicle of unfulfilled national promise. Historical sufferers and victim groups receive belated recognition and redress. Participation in history becomes an empathetic act. By sharing the pain of exploited groups and learning the gloomy "truth" of the U.S. past, students presumably learn to become more virtuous and sensitive.

The world history standards pushed Western civilization to the side, straining throughout for equivalence of cultures. "Drawing on archaeological evidence for the growth of Jenne-jeno, interpret the commercial importance of this city in West African history," states one suggested activity. "How did the commercial importance of Jenne-jeno in this era compare with that of contemporary western European commercial centers such as early Venice?" The cultural achievements of Classical Greece, the Abbasid Caliphate "as a center of cultural innovation and hub of interregional trade in the 8th-10th centuries," and "the civilization of Kush" receive equal weight in the standards. The miracles of Western science and public health are sidelined in favor of recherche topics interesting only to university specialists. In order to demonstrate historical understanding, eighth-graders could "create a summary evaluation of the Zagwe dynasty of Ethiopia from the view of an Egyptian Coptic Christian" and ask "How would a Muslim from Adal have evaluated the Zagwe history? "

Ancient Rome, Judeo-Christian theology, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution all suffered from inattention, as new attention was paid to Gupta India, Coptic Ethiopia, and Bantu culture. Old military heroes like Hannibal and Wellington disappear from the historical scene. Now Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, Catherine the Great and Louis XIV, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud play supporting roles, and are no longer considered dominating figures of their respective historical ages.

This is what has been the norm in late-20th century and early 21st century textbooks, not what just occurred down in Texas. If this has been going on for decades, is it not inevitable that some people -- like the board in Texas -- will react?

The question isn't whether there should be "diversity" in such texts (there should), but whether the need for such diversity outweighs basic common sense. After all, should the Kush civilization really be given equal weight to the achievements of the ancient Greeks ... just because of "diversity?" Should the Columbian conquest be reduced to "a three-way encounter" between Europeans, Native Americans and Africans when it was only the Europeans doing the actual "encountering" ... just because it may show some "superiority" of the European side?

This doesn't mean that such history should be whitewashed, of course. The horrors of slavery, the decimation of the Native Americans, and the long, brutal struggle for civil rights for all Americans should be covered -- and covered well in our textbooks. But not to the exclusion of [many] other significant topics and not without discussion of the ongoing battles for remedies for past wrongs. Many texts have become denigrations of virtually anything Western, while anything not Western is celebrated. (Which, as you might expect, just might leave middle and high schoolers pondering just why the heck the Western world has been so damn successful!)

At any rate, good history teachers will know how to supplement textbooks -- and may only use them at a minimum anyway. And why should it matter to the rest of the country what Texas does? Why do publishers have to use the standards that Texas adopts for other texts? Why don't other states complain and demand to use different standards and/or books? Education should be a local matter (though I know that sentiment is not exactly en vogue at present). Honestly, if liberal enclaves across the nation want to teach that the Columbian conquest was "an equal encounter" or whatever, then let 'em. And if Texas wishes to stress Christianity's influence in the Founding, so be it. At the very most at the federal level (if anything) only extremely basic standard outlines for the subject should be available.

Posted by Hube at March 15, 2010 04:03 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I find the whole debate fascinating. I was the chief editor and primary author of DE's 1995 Social Studies Standards (which are still in force) and chaired the committee that supplemented them with detailed performance indicators. That said, what amuses me in TX is the discomfort of many people around here with the insistence that the rise of conservatism is now mandated in the Lone Star State .... when it has been mandated in our own State since about 1998. Ooops.

I will defend the "three worlds meet" approach, but not for the reasons you would necessarily expect (Columbus plays a prominent part in the DE performance indicators). The 3 worlds thing actually came out of Ethnohistory and Braudel's work on Civilization and Capitalism. The reason I like the model, however imperfect it is when used as a liberal crying towel, is that it gets to both process and the generational nature of the opening of the Atlantic Ocean as a highway of commerce.

What's also interesting is how it gets mishandled because nobody ever hits the ongoing history of the Caribbean or Latin America to note that in those areas European culture collided with the existing culture and--in many ways--eventually got absorbed by it.

As for the concern over "constitutional republic" versus "democracy," that's fairly idiotic--unless you've never read either Plato, Locke, or the US Constitution to know that we are not a democracy.

Too long. Shit you keep this up and I may end up blogging again.

Posted by: steve Newton at March 15, 2010 10:11 PM

OK one more comment based on your last sentence: I wonder sometimes exactly how anybody is actually taught American political thought prior to the Constitutional Convention without being taught about (a) the Protestant Reformation and the political implications of the doctrine of salvation through grace on the extension of the franchise; (b) the Great Awakening and the evangelical movement weakening the bonds of traditional social authorities in the 1750s; or even (c) Deism to be able to understand the concept of "nature's God" as people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood it.

I find today that when I explain to college freshmen the linkage between Protestant notions about salvation and universal suffrage they look at me and literally say, "Why didn't somebody explain this to me before?"

"Too busy," I tell them, "giving you fantasies that our Constitution is derived from the League of the Iroquois."

Posted by: steve Newton at March 15, 2010 10:16 PM

Steve: Ever read The Disuniting of America by Arthur Schlesinger?

Posted by: Hube at March 16, 2010 05:24 PM

Yeah, I've read it. Schlesinger deserves to be known more for his history of the New Deal, especially "The Twilight of the Old Order," which, even if you disagree with his ideological perspective, contains some of the most brilliant historical narrative writing by any American historian.

"Disuniting" fails to impress me for a wide variety of reason too numerous and too complex to go into here; along with Blum's "Closing of the American Mind" it has become a period piece and has not worn particularly well with time.

There are very few people today actually discussing the nature of history itself (as a craft and as an understanding) as opposed to the nature of history textbooks.

I have profound problems with any State (as in DE or TX or anywhere) or National History curriculum. It is one of those areas wherein I think Democracy (or a Constitutional Republic) is best served by a fairly anarchistic cacaphony.

Did I just actually use "anarchistic cacaphony" in a sentence?

Don't let me write any standards.

Posted by: steve Newton at March 16, 2010 06:53 PM

I have profound problems with any State (as in DE or TX or anywhere) or National History curriculum. It is one of those areas wherein I think Democracy (or a Constitutional Republic) is best served by a fairly anarchistic cacaphony.

I agree! (Which is what I believe I wrote in my last paragraph anyway ...!) ;-)

Posted by: Hube at March 16, 2010 07:00 PM

Of course, the problem with the "anarchistic cacaphony approach is the reality that we have a "high stakes test" in social studies at several grade levels down here in Texas -- and are going to be adding at least one grade level to the mix starting in two years. If you are going to give a state-mandated test, you need to give a general indicator of who and what will be on it -- so that teachers can include those people and events, and so that students can review them in anticipation of that test.

Posted by: Rhymes With Right at March 17, 2010 12:50 PM

Been there done that got the T-shirt.

Social studies/History standards simply do not work, in the sense that they generally have such reliability and validity problems that you cannot actually extract any useable information from them.

The only reason that social studies people fought for inclusion in the 90s was the belief that "what is tested will be funded and will be taught," so if they did not jump on the bandwagon like everybody else they'd be left behind in the funding wars.

Guess what? Except for Senator Byrd's Teaching American History grants, they got left behind anyway, and got stuck with really bad standards across the board.

The answer? Mine is to test the teachers on a series of skills related to the discipline, not the students.

Posted by: steve Newton at March 17, 2010 09:29 PM

And I don't necessarily disagree with you, Steve -- but the reality is that we do have the test, and are racheting up the testing regime here in Texas.

And as for testing the teachers -- did that in two different states and got certified in both with flying colors.

Posted by: Rhymes With Right at March 18, 2010 05:12 PM


Posted by: jmb27 at May 22, 2010 03:19 PM