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Texas Textbooks and the Great American Culture War

May 24, 2010

American high school students don’t know much about history. In fact, most of them don’t really care whether Andrew Jackson was the seventh president or one of the Jackson Five. But the sweeping social studies textbook changes recently approved by the Texas State Board of Education have opened up a gusher of controversy that almost rivals the gulf oil spill.

Most of the noise is emanating from the progressive camp, outraged that half a century of assiduous leftward revisionism is being trashed — in Bush Country, of  course. The headlines scream with alarm and revulsion: “Texas Textbook Massacre” seems to be especially popular (Huffington Post and elsewhere), while proclaimed, “Texas Cooks the Textbooks.”

Rewriting history, or just correcting old mistakes?

I’m not alarmed or revulsed (if that’s not a word, it should be). As a relative oldster, I’ve lived through the entire half-century of left-wing dominance in social studies — the whole, sorry, misguided, overheated movement to pop the bubble of American ideals while taking every opportunity to debunk the virtues of whites, males, Christians, Europeans and any combination thereof. 

Yes, the teaching of American history needed to be more “inclusive” and a little less jingoistic. (The only black person enshrined in our mid-century textbooks was George Washington Carver, and I can remember silently questioning why the Spanish American War was a good thing.) But the winds blew too hard from the left for too many years, and I say it’s about time they shifted.

Of course, we moderates don’t want those winds to blow too fiercely in the other direction, either. We have to be vigilant. America has long been vulnerable to sweeping cultural shifts — veering from extreme puritanism to extreme permissiveness, from white chauvinism to white self-flagellation, with dizzying regularity. The ongoing culture war has only exaggerated our national tendency to embrace the extremes, the way global warming has boosted the ferocity of our hurricanes.

The left and right have been battling for supremacy ever since the McCarthy era, and the cultural momentum hasn’t always coincided with the political faction in power. The left actually made its greatest cultural inroads during the long Republican presidential hegemony from 1969 to 1993, from Nixon through Bush the Elder — broken only by Jimmy Carter’s brief exercise in futility.

Now, with a confirmed Democrat residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the right-wingers have staged their own uprising. But is the Texas textbook decision just another example of Tea Partiers gone wild? Let’s look at some of the actual changes endorsed by the state board of education…

  • Label the U.S. a “constitutional republic,” not a democratic one. Nobody who has observed the cozy relationship between lobbyists and Congress can truthfully assert that our nation is a democracy. Good decision, Texans.
  • Demote Thomas Jefferson from the ranks of political philosophers who influenced the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Acceptable but politically suspect: granted, I always thought the Sage of Monticello got way too much mileage out of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — it was a borrowed idea, after all. But his demotion wouldn’t have anything to do with his unorthodox religious beliefs, would it?
  • Use B.C. and A.D. (not BCE and CE) to designate historical dates. Cheers for the willful archaism of the Texas decision. BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) mysteriously crept into common usage without anyone voting on whether we wanted to discard the Christian underpinnings of the old style. Since the dates still revolve around the (erroneous) date for the birth of Christ, why camouflage them with post-Christian initials?
  • Include Clinton’s impeachment in the litany of presidential scandals. This one’s a no-brainer; presidential impeachments don’t happen every day, and there’s no reason to overlook Clinton’s (other than willful whitewashing by loyal Democrats).
  • Replace “imperialism” with “expansionism” when describing U.S. foreign policy. Marxists love to jabber about U.S. imperialism, but aside from the isolated excesses of the Mexican and Spanish American Wars (totaling four years of U.S. history), our country hasn’t worked at building a far-flung territorial empire in the manner of the Romans or British. Even “expansionist” probably goes too far. “Meddling” is closer to the mark. “Exceptionalist” works, too. So does “self-righteous.” But enough about us.
  • Recognize that Communists actually did infiltrate the U.S. government during the McCarthy era. Huzzahs for this one: as long as the Texans don’t glorify the reckless, obsessive and slightly unhinged Wisconsin senator, this fact needs to be recognized after half a century of studious obfuscations by the left. McCarthy didn’t need to look under his bed for Communists; they were skulking around the State Department.
  • Explain how Arab rejection of the state of Israel has led to ongoing conflict. Well, duh! Any naysayers here? But don’t portray Israel as a faultless victim, either. Balance, balance!
  • Cover the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 90s, including Reagan’s role in winning the Cold War. Absolutely — this is indisputable history, though we don’t want to canonize Reagan or portray him as a solitary superhero who singlehandedly brought down the Iron Curtain.
  • Discuss alternatives to federal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, especially in light of the growing retiree-to-worker ratio. Yes, we have a serious problem here, and it’s eminently worthy of discussion.  Let the kids decide whether their folks deserve all that generous federal aid in their dotage.
  • Exclude hip-hop from the study of American popular music. Well, we don’t like hip-hop either, but you have to be blind or deaf (or dead) to ignore its influence. Thumbs down on this one.
  • Examine the efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty. OK, now we’re bordering on paranoia. The last time the U.N. had any influence was during the Kennedy administration. And that’s probably giving the international body too much credit. Thumbs down.
  • Compare the speeches of Confederate president Jefferson Davis with those of Lincoln. Are they sure they want to go through with this? (There must be a few closet Yankees on the Texas Education Agency.) Certainly harmless enough.
  • Analyze how the abandonment of the gold standard affected the value of the dollar. Not a big deal, except perhaps to William Jennings Bryan. Feel free to discuss.
  • Call capitalism by its more euphonious and people-friendly name: free enterprise. Sort of like the way liberals renamed themselves “progressives” because liberalism had become a dirty word. Sneaky move, but it really doesn’t change anything.
  • Compare the phrase “separation of church and state” to the actual language of the First Amendment. Hallelujah! I’m no theocrat, but I’ve long objected to the use of that secularist catchphrase as an excuse to drive religion from all public arenas. The First Amendment simply (and wisely) promised that the federal government wouldn’t establish a state church (like Anglicanism in England or Catholicism in France). Just as important, it promised that Congress would never prohibit the free exercise of our religious beliefs. Merry Christmas, and God bless us every one! 
  • Refer to the slave trade as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade.” Whoa there, pardners! Say what? Let’s be thankful that the Texans decided to reject this abominable euphemism, and that saner voices prevailed.

The Texas Board approved more than a hundred other modifications to their social studies textbooks, but these seem to be the most significant of the bunch. The majority are harmless and several are praiseworthy — at least to this diehard moderate. But of course they’re still the by-products of the perpetual tug of war between the American right and left.

Opponents of the “Texas Textbook Massacre” (and their numbers are legion) are lambasting the State Board of Education for allegedly rewriting history. But the Texans are just rewriting textbooks — fallible works of scholarship that reflected the left-wing biases of the past half-century.

Of course the conservatives are rewriting those books in their own image. But I detect no evidence of hallucinatory extremism — no laments for the lost Confederacy, no calls for the reinstatement of Jim Crow or Creationism, no proclamation that the United States is a Christian nation. The Texans are simply thumbing their noses at left-wing political correctness, a gesture that I think was long overdue. By definition, political correctness stifles diversity of opinion and even free speech. A little heresy is what it needs, and the Texans have happily provided it.

History is written not so much by the victors, but by the team that has the upper hand at the moment. For fifty years the left ruled the educational roost, and it still does. It just doesn’t rule in Texas, and that’s probably a good thing for all of us.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. valdobiade permalink
    May 24, 2010 4:29 pm

    “Include Clinton’s impeachment along with the litany of other presidential scandals.”

    Of course! Why waste Republican efforts to impeach a Democrat President?

    Let’s educate the young generation that lying in political matters is equivalent with lying for getting a BJ. Ohhhh! An American President lying? That’s news????

    Wait a minute! BJ is a political affair? Wow! A lot of people wanted Bush the Young to have this political maneuver to be applied on him, but what were the chances?
    No woman will go so low.

    Will the Texas history book will include a description of a BJ? I know Nixon tapes were made public but a description of a BJ?

    • taliesinknol permalink
      May 24, 2010 5:28 pm

      “Clinton got a blowjob”

  2. valdobiade permalink
    May 24, 2010 4:44 pm

    “Label the U.S. a “constitutional republic,” not a democratic one. ”

    Sure, ‘constitutional republic’ is to protect the individual god-given rights form the tyranny of majority.

    A corporate is a person (also a minority too), so get your god-damned democratic chosen government off my “god-given” rights.

    • May 25, 2010 2:23 pm

      Valdo: A pure democracy would be a horror show (not to mention impossible: 300 million people can’t hold a meeting in Washington’s agora). I wouldn’t want my future to be decided by people who watch “American Idol.” Of course, I don’t want it being decided by today’s Congressmen, either.

  3. valdobiade permalink
    May 24, 2010 4:48 pm

    “Designate historical dates with B.C. and A.D., not BCE and CE”

    See? We Texans do not mix religion and state affairs.

  4. taliesinknol permalink
    May 24, 2010 5:27 pm

    “Demote Thomas Jefferson from the ranks of political philosophers who influenced the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. ”
    Of Course the third president and major author of the declaration of Independence isn’t that important… after all, lots of people considered him an atheist.

    “Include Clinton’s impeachment along with the litany of other presidential scandals.”
    Like how the Republican leading the investigation (that had nothing to do with politics…) was later found to be unfaithful to his wife… (as to the comparison with Nixon, the witch-hunt by the Washington post is covered in High school history classes.)

    “Replace “imperialism” with “expansionism” when describing U.S. foreign policy.”
    Am I the only one thinks expansionism sounds worse?

    “Recognize that Communists actually did infiltrate the U.S. government during the McCarthy era. ”
    That is covered now…

    “Explain how Arab rejection of the state of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.”
    Ok, thumbs up, this was glossed over. But how about they also include stuff like “The Isrealites hadn’t lived there for several thousand years” and the numerous other gripes of Palestinians living there.

    “Cover the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 90s, including Reagan’s role in winning the Cold War.”
    This is covered, “the Moral Majority” SALT, Reagan. How about some focus on the things Reagan did to stop Communism? Like fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and virtually creating the Taliban and Al-Queda? Or supporting the Iranians. (pre-revolution) Current history classes cover the failure of Carter in the Iran Hostage crisis.

    “Examine the efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty.”
    How about Us efforts to undermine the sovereignty of other nations?

    “Call capitalism by its more euphonious and people-friendly name: free enterprise.”
    If you put “free” in the name, it must be good! *sigh*

    “Compare the phrase “separation of church and state” to the actual language of the First Amendment. ”
    “Congress shall make no law respecting religion” sounds good to me, hand over those tax exemptions and get rid of the national day of prayer.

    “Refer to the slave trade as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade.”
    Cause in a free market, anything should be for sale, even freedom.

    • May 25, 2010 2:19 pm

      Wow, TK, sounds like you’re from a conservative state if your school actually mentioned Communist infiltration during the McCarthy era.

      Some great quotable lines here, my friend: “Cause in a free market, anything should be for sale, even freedom.”

      I’m afraid I have to agree with you about teaching kids how the U.S. has undermined the sovereignty of other nations. That’s our national dirty secret (aside from swiping a continent from the Indians, which isn’t so secret). Some of our actions in Central America, for example, have been deplorable — and of course hardly anyone knows about them.

  5. Priscilla permalink
    May 25, 2010 9:16 am

    Kudos on this post, Rick. The misinformation that has been written about this textbook revision rivals the misinformation on the Arizona illegal immigration law…..

    Just a couple of comments – the purpose of the Texas rewrite had, as one of its goals, the prioritizing of facts and issues, in recognition of the reality that no history text can contain the totality American history or the American expeerience – there simply is not enough space in the book to put EVERYTHING. Hence, the deletion of Jefferson the philosopher, given that Jefferson and his ideas featured prominently in other sections of the text…..I have never seen the designations BCE and CE, although A.D. and B.C. seem pretty well established, and most people have no freaking clue what they stand for anyway. The hip-hop thing? Eh, when you are looking at cultural trends in American music, jazz trumps all the rest, but you could write a whole textbook on those trends alone. And as far as the UN thing, I give thumbs up – as a former HS history teacher, I was always bothered by the reverence shown to the UN, a wholy corrupt entity, that places Iran on its women’s rights commission…..a little realism in evaluating that farcical organization is welcome, I think. Looking at the original UN charter, and then comparing it to the UN today would be a worthy educational investigation……

    In any case, I find the hysteria over these changes very telling. Yes, I am sure that most of the Texas Board of Education is of a conservative mindset, but they clearly indicated that their intention was to revise the texts to bring some tradtional perspective back to the teaching of history. For example, Milton Friedman was included as an influencial economist,when only Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes were there previously….that is clearly an attempt to “right” the ship, quite literally, but the ship was clearly listing “left” in that instance. But, I think that the accusations of an attempt to “pervert history to an agenda” reveals a bit of projection?

    • May 25, 2010 2:32 pm

      Priscilla: Everyone has an agenda, including the people who accuse the Texas Board of having an agenda. I sometimes wonder if there’s such a thing as neutral history — just the facts, without any discernible slant.

      As for the U.N., I don’t think anyone takes it seriously any more; it’s just a venting forum for Third World grievances. When we were kids, it seemed to have real stature; the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. was a position of importance. I like your suggestion that we compare today’s U.N. with its original mission as outlined in the charter.

      And you’re right: there’s only so much room in a high school history book; if somebody is added, somebody has to make an exit.

  6. valdobiade permalink
    May 25, 2010 1:23 pm

    Priscilla: “I have never seen the designations BCE and CE, although A.D. and B.C. seem pretty well established, and most people have no freaking clue what they stand for anyway.”

    Oh yes! you’re right Priscilla, but for those who knows… boy oh boy… “In your face dirty Muslims, it is not Anno Mohammad (A.M) neither Before Muslims (B.M)”

  7. Shiroi permalink
    May 25, 2010 4:07 pm

    A similar thing has been happening around here. During the last simulated vestibular I got all the History and Geography questions right though I didn’t study a thing. Every. Single One. How did I do it?

    I just marked the questions that mentioned “imperialism”, “inequality” and those terms Marxists use so onanistically. It’s pervasive to the point where you just need to understand their simplistic, revisionistic mentalities and you can answer anything.

    • May 26, 2010 5:49 pm

      Brilliant reasoning, Shiroi. The academic left is so predictable; glad you’ve been able to profit from their dogmatism.

      Now I understand why I’m both a moderate and a cynic. We moderates spend half our time shaking our heads at the inanities of the extremists who dominate our culture.

  8. Priscilla permalink
    May 26, 2010 10:33 am

    Rick, I don’t know if there is any such thing as neutral history…it’s kind of like the tree falling in the forest – if no one writes about it or remembers it, is it history? That is a rhetorical question, of course, but this whole Texas thing proves that just the simple inclusion or exclusion of simple facts are subject to a political agenda. And, as you pointed out, the misunderstanding of the establishment clause regarding “separation of church and state” has become so entrenched that most don’t even see it as a misunderstanding anymore….

    Ah, if only things could be like they were back in the day when we studied by candlelight, and walked miles in the snow, uphill, to school – oh, wait….that didn’t happen. 😉

    • May 26, 2010 5:56 pm

      Priscilla, I think you’ve nailed the reason that history textbooks can never be entirely neutral. Even when we deal with straightforward facts, we cherry-pick them according to our biases. It reminds me of the way the Bible has spawned so many hundreds of sects, each with its own favorite verses to quote. Everyone uses the same source material, but they conveniently ignore the stuff they don’t particularly like.

  9. valdobiade permalink
    May 26, 2010 12:37 pm

    Priscilla wrote : “Rick, I don’t know if there is any such thing as neutral history…”

    Yes indeed, the conquerors always wrote the history. However, in Texas, it is only a hand of losers who know that, by what they are doing, will stir controversy. Well, they want some publicity, they will get it.

    I think that the last Bush wants to finally understand history , of which he anyway was not aware as president. The Texas board of education is helping The Decider, the last child left behind.

  10. May 26, 2010 5:57 pm

    Valdo, you’re such a cynic!

  11. October 26, 2010 8:16 pm

    Concur with almost all of the points. My quibbles are with the first 2:

    A great portion of America is bought and sold, including votes. But that present day legislators and voters allow this to go on does not negate the fact that they CHOOSE to allow it. Purported ignorance in this case is irrelevant; information is available for any who want it. Democracy is about choice, and no one’s choices have been stolen…at least not yet.

    Totally wrong on Jefferson. This guy is the best representative of the multiparadoxical nature of this country. Is the aversion to “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” due to its terribly ambiguous implications? Anyway, Jefferson remains an enigma to any and all historians, and can we honestly say any differently about America’s mere two centuries of history?

    Those 2 changes are unacceptable, but I champion the rest.

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