Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lesson from Texas Textbook Debacle: Stop Teaching American History in Public Schools

The Texas Board of Education has attracted considerable attention this spring as it rewrites its American History textbook standards in a starkly conservative direction. The vote on these changes is approaching shortly. The alterations, as many media outlets have covered, include the explicit assertion that the United States was founded upon biblical principles, that the Confederacy wasn't all that bad, and that the UN is evil. You can read the full list of the proposed changes here (hat tip TPM).

It doesn't take a PhD in history to know these changes are dumb, or to be disturbed by their radically conservative political intent. Even as curriculum "reform," they're a joke. The board, led by profoundly unqualified individuals, basically is asking school teachers and textbook publishers to teach what they like instead of stuff they don't like. Board member Cynthia Dunbar, a decorated graduate of Pat Robertson's law school, would just throw the whole state public education system out and homeschools her own children.

Dunbar told the Guardian:
"We are fighting for our children's education and our nation's future," Dunbar said. "In Texas we have certain statutory obligations to promote patriotism and to promote the free enterprise system. There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections." 
The obligation to make history a vehicle for "patriotic ideology" is really the core of the issue here, not whether or not Ronald Reagan gets more ink than Caesar Chavez. If you have ever taught the American History survey course at the collegiate level, you know that the likelihood of students comprehending and retaining more than a fraction of any course material - revisionist or not - is low. For their part, those few liberals on the Texas school board understand what's really at stake. To quote from the fine Guardian piece once more:
"There is a battle for the soul of education," said Mavis Knight, a liberal member of the Texas education board. "They're trying to indoctrinate with American exceptionalism, the Christian founding of this country, the free enterprise system. There are strands where the free enterprise system fits appropriately but they have stretched the concept of the free enterprise system back to medieval times. The president of the Texas historical association could not find any documentation to support the stretching of the free enterprise system to ancient times but it made no difference."
The only reason to learn American History in school, conservatives are essentially arguing, is to imbibe patriotism. Conservatives have argued this for as long as there have been history textbooks. The Union veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic monitored texts for overly sympathetic portrayals of the American South and "pro-British" bias in describing the American Revolution. Charles Beard's economic interpretation of founding of the American republic, which found its way into high school textbooks in the early 20th century, came under fire for not being patriotic enough. My guys in the American Legion claimed the popular texts of Columbia Teachers' College professor Harold Rugg were pro-Communist for emphasizing social and economic factors in American historical development. They also complained in the 1950s, in ways Texas board member (and dentist) Don McLeroy echoes, that the UN was spreading the ideology of one-world government through lessons developed by UNESCO. Lynne Cheney made almost identical complaints about history standards when she was the chair of the NEH in the 1990s.

The reason that these controversies bubble up ad nauseum is not that the left and right cannot agree on the importance of particular historical detail, but that conservatives have no respect for the historical profession. Rather than uncovering the story of American greatness for all to celebrate, historians try to recreate as best they can the worlds of the past and to understand them in their own right. We want to capture fleeting human experience through the passage of time because to do so is a profoundly humane endeavor. Conservatives would prefer we erect heroic idols and, especially in this case, contribute to the institution of a Judeo-Christian version of sharia.

As a historian, the most depressing part of this most recent textbook battle is that all of the wonderful methodological advances of the last half-century within the historical profession are not even remotely part of this "reform" conversation. History in the minds of the conservative school board members is still nothing more than the story of battles and leaders, and maybe a great organization like the National Rifle Association. All the efforts by historians to delve into the experiences of those left behind by such a narrative -- women, workers, racial minorities -- are irrelevant to the secondary school classroom. Methodological innovation has revolutionized the way professors teach the survey at the collegiate level, I would strongly argue for the better. But they have not made a dent in the way school boards or even the public in general thinks about what history is.

 No other academic discipline receives less professional respect in American schools than history. Efforts like the one in Texas explicitly claim to be defending the vulnerable minds of students from the "un-patriotic" intellectual "elite" of American universities. There is plenty to be patriotic about in the tale of American history told straight. But this insistence that history classes merely serve as vehicles for "patriotic ideology," however narrowly defined that ideology should be, throws into question the usefulness of the entire exercise.

So perhaps, until history as a profession gets the respect it deserves, we should just stop teaching American history at all in public schools. Conservatives will cry that the nation will fly apart because children will lack patriotic spirit, as they have been warning since the Gilded Age. The nation's JV basketball coaches will have to find some other subject matter to butcher. The average student might know slightly less about the nation's history than she or he would have before -- which isn't much anyway. And at the end of the process we will have learned whether it is the present or the past that most informs our feelings for our country. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes - I think this hits the nail on the head. The totality of right-wing disinterest in the details of the past (particularly when they are troubling) is remarkable. I feel like I saw a lot of that this year - to the point where it began to inform my teaching. Another decade or two of the patriotic tripe the students were turning in out of habit and I'd be a Chomskyite.