A chance to remove the “politicized distortion of history” from Texas curriculum standards

Eight years ago the State Board of Education blundered badly in drafting curriculum standards for social studies, approving language that has led textbook writers for the Texas market to distort what schoolchildren here learn about history. SBOE members have a chance to correct the mistakes of 2010 as these curriculum standards come up for review later this year.

In the online version of the Austin American-Statesman today, two scholars—history professor Edward Countryman of Southern Methodist University and political scientist Emile Lester of the University of Mary Washington—describe what went wrong last time and what needs fixing now. Here’s an extended excerpt:

The ongoing textbook wars have embarrassed Texas for years. But the State Board of Education this year has a key opportunity to take politics out of our children’s classrooms.

The board is revising social studies curriculum standards that guide what students learn in their history, government and geography classrooms. The last revision of these standards eight years ago was a political circus. Board members made hundreds of changes to official drafts that teams of teachers and scholars had spent months pulling together.

Many changes were based on little more than the personal and political biases of board members themselves. The process was often chaotic and the final product poor.

How bad was it? At one point, board members deleted from the standards a children’s book author they mistakenly thought was a Marxist. They also removed Thomas Jefferson from a standard about great Enlightenment thinkers, arguing that he wasn’t important enough. They backed down on both in the face of withering criticism from across the country, but they insisted on making other appalling changes.

….[The current standards] promote the myth that southern states fought the Civil War over “states’ rights.” One board member even called slavery a “side issue.” But official declarations of secession from that era explicitly contradict such claims, making clear that southern states left the union to protect slavery and white supremacy. The Texas Declaration offers one of the clearest examples:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

But students won’t learn about that in the whitewashed version of history promoted by the current curriculum standards.

The standards also suggest that civil rights gains may have had negative consequences for society, international treaties are an anti-American conspiracy and separation of church and state really isn’t a key constitutional principle.

These and numerous other examples have appalled historians. Even scholars working with the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute have criticized the Texas standards as “a politicized distortion of history” filled with “misrepresentations at every turn.”

….It’s important that our public schools prepare students to be informed citizens with a fact-based understanding of our nation’s history and government. We can’t heal divisions and tackle other challenges that persist in our country otherwise.

That common understanding is harder to reach when politicians hijack our children’s public schools to promote their own ideological agendas. The result is indoctrination, not education.

So, the state board this year must clean up the mess left by board members from eight years ago. It’s time to get politics out of our public school classrooms.