Is Texas Messing With History?

April 27, 2010

Wall Street Journal

David Upham

For several months, the elected members of the Lone Star State’s board of education have considered extensive revisions to the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum. After months of efforts, the board’s conservative majority tentatively approved a new curriculum in March, and on April 15 the board published its proposal, which it may adopt after allowing 30 days for public comment.

The comment has been vocal. Critics in Texas and across the nation have decried the changes as educational malpractice, with news reports characterizing them as “historically inaccurate” and reflecting “far right” bias. The board allegedly expunged Thomas Jefferson, minimized constitutional safeguards for religious freedom, and ignored the struggles of women and minorities for civil rights. A letter signed by several historians at the Universities of Texas at Austin and El Paso claimed the board “undermined the study of the social sciences in our public schools by misrepresenting and even distorting the historical record.” Newsweek ridiculed the “Texas Curriculum Massacre.”

Despite the allegations, however, no one has pointed to a particular significant error of fact. My own review of the proposed curriculum did not reveal anything plainly false, and the oft-repeated accusations of outrageous omission are demonstrably false. The board did not excise Thomas Jefferson, downplay constitutional religious freedom, or minimize the role of women and minorities. On the contrary, the curriculum is replete with specific references to Jefferson, religious freedom, the civil rights movement, and the achievements and struggles of women and minorities.

To cite but one example, at every grade level, classes must observe “Celebrate Freedom Week” with instruction concerning “the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.” This annual study of the Declaration (initially drafted by Jefferson) “must include the study of the relationship of the ideas expressed in that document to subsequent American history, including the relationship of its ideas to the rich diversity of our people as a nation of immigrants, the American Revolution, the formulation of the U.S. Constitution, and the abolitionist movement, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the women’s suffrage movement.”

The allegations of omission seem to have arisen from a few contentious decisions made by the board. For example, the board amended an advisory panel’s recommendation that world-history students learn how modern politics was influenced by the “Enlightenment ideas” of Rousseau, Voltaire, Jefferson and others. Instead, the board removed Jefferson from this specific list and broadened the study to include three non-Enlightenment thinkers who had a profound influence on modern politics: Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.

These changes were reasonable. The recommended list had given insufficient attention to the ways pre-modern and other non-Enlightenment political theories influenced modern politics. Conversely, Jefferson was more of a statesman who was profoundly influenced by others’ political theory than a political theorist. He is, therefore, somewhat out of place on a list of political theorists.

In another controversial but understandable move, the board declined to require that third-graders study Dolores Huerta alongside Helen Keller and Clara Barton as an exemplar of good citizenship. This decision contributed to the erroneous assertion that the board had ignored the contributions of women and minorities. Like Cesar Chavez, Ms. Huerta was an important leader in the cause of farm workers’ rights and remains in the high-school curriculum. But she is also a prominent advocate of unrestricted abortion and socialism, the honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and therefore, arguably, not a role model for third-graders.

The board’s Republican majority rejected an amendment by board member Mavis Knight, a Democrat, to teach students that “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.” This decision fostered the myth that the Republicans had de-emphasized religious freedom.

Yet the proposal was an overstatement of the historical truth. While virtually all the Founders endorsed religious freedom, they disagreed as to whether, and how, the government should promote Protestantism, Christianity, theism, or religion in general.

To be sure, the proposed curriculum is far from perfect. Because the board erred on the side of inclusion, the new curriculum is more than 40% longer than the old one, which was itself too long. As board member and former teacher Patricia Hardy, a Republican, lamented, “It’s hard for teachers to get through it all.”

And some needless additions smack of score-settling from old political battles. An advisory panel referred concisely to “McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms race, and the space race.” But the board’s conservatives insisted that the standards elaborate “how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.” While accurate, this specific detail seems incongruous and is arguably improper.

There are also questionable omissions. The revised curriculum treats slavery as a significant cause of the Civil War, but it fails — like the existing curriculum — to frankly acknowledge slavery’s preponderant role. Despite an admirable focus on reading primary sources, the curriculum conspicuously omits the Texas Declaration of Secession, which provides strong evidence that the preservation of slavery was the principal motive of Texan secessionists.

In one respect the curriculum is profoundly conservative. As “Celebrate Freedom Week” suggests, the board determined that the abolition of slavery and the expansion of civil rights for women and minorities should be treated as a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike the liberal readings of history that prevail in academia, this approach affirms that this progress resulted from the renewal of the Founders’ principles, and not their rejection.

Is the board’s more conservative and overtly patriotic reading of history the best one? That’s a matter of legitimate disagreement. Yet there is no evidence to support the charge that this imperfect curriculum amounts to educational malpractice.

Mr. Upham is an assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas.