Whose history will Texas teach our children? Social Studies standards debated

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by Imani Evans

(NNPA) – The never-ending battle over historical memory has become a high-profile tableau in Texas. On May 21, the 15-member State Board of Education will make its final vote on the revised social studies standards that will largely determine what students will be taught about U.S. history – including such hotly contested issues as civil rights, the Great Society, anticommunism and the separation of church and state – for the next 10 years. What have made this round of revisions a national story are the unabashed efforts of the seven-member bloc of Republicans on the board to rewrite history with a decidedly conservative spin.

“[The proposed standards] serve a two-fold purpose,” said Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe. “One is to minimize Blacks and Latinos, their accomplishments, their efforts, even suggesting that the successes that minorities have had is a result of White benevolence rather than minority agitation. … The other part is that what they’re proposing would brainwash students. They’re adopting a curriculum that would teach individuals that the Republican philosophy is the proper philosophy in that they should become Republican.”

The NAACP has been one among a handful of organizations – others include League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Alliance for Education and the American G.I. Forum – fighting a rear guard action against the impending changes through impassioned testimony at Board hearings and efforts to mobilize their members statewide.

When implemented, the standards will dictate to textbook publishers what their books must contain in order to be adopted in the huge Texas market. And as far as textbooks are concerned, what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas. Since Texas is one of a few states that purchases textbooks as a state rather than leaving it up to local districts, and because Texas is second-largest in population (after California), there is a strong economic incentive for publishers to skew the content of their books – even those that will be sold in other states – toward what will find favor in the Lone Star State.

The process began in January with the assignment of each grade level to teams of writers comprised mainly of subject matter experts. Once it began to appear, however, that the writing teams’ work would not sufficiently conform to the wishes of the conservative bloc, that faction, led by Don McLeroy of Bryan-College Station, began to take a more active role in shaping the final product.

McLeroy, elected to the Board in 1998 and serving as chair from July 2007 until May 2009, describes his mission as one of advocating for “accurate, balanced and unbiased” history, even as he allows that people may respectfully disagree on what counts as “accurate” history.

However, in a quote given in a recent article in Washington Monthly, McLeroy is less coy about what he himself considers unbiased history: “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan – he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

Among the tangible results of the McLeroy view of history, according to critics: a retelling of the story of civil rights as being less about minority struggle and more about the generosity of Whites; relegation of Thomas Jefferson to the margins because of his views on church-state separation; an attempt to rehabilitate the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy; and inclusion of language alluding to the “unintended consequences” of LBJ’s Great Society.

“These subjective, biased revisions turn the very notion of civil rights on its head, ignoring the clear historical record of organizing by women and ethnic minorities to gain equal rights in the face of majority opposition,” said the NAFE in a letter to the Board. “It would be an insult to those Americans who sacrificed so much – in some cases, their lives – for the cause of civil rights to present this skewed view of history in our public school classrooms.”

Amendments to the curriculum proposed by the Board’s minority members such as Mavis B. Knight of Dallas and Mary Helen Berlanga have been repeatedly stymied by party-line votes, leading Knight to charge the Board’s conservative members with subordinating history to their own ideological agenda. Berlanga’s unsuccessful effort to increase the number of Latino role models in the curriculum reportedly led her to storm out of the Board’s March 12 meeting.

“What is at stake is that our youth are going to be put so far behind the curve when we allow the [Board] to record as they would like it to have been rather than the way it was,” said San Antonio NAACP president Marvinette Smith, a co-signer of the NAFE letter.

In theory, textbook publishers could produce one textbook for Texas, and another for everyone else. But this usually proves too costly in practice. And California, the one state large enough – and liberal enough – to counterbalance Texas, has put off purchasing new textbooks until 2014 because of its budget woes.

In other words, what happens on May 21 will likely make a large and irreversible splash in the contentious waters of history teaching in Texas and beyond.

Special to the NNPA from the Dallas Examiner

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