Texas Textbooks and the Great American Culture War
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 Newsweek.com proclaimed, “Texas Cooks the Textbooks.”
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.