Erasing history's lessons

17th August 2012 at 01:00
De-emphasise the civil rights movement, play down the slave trade and don't focus on the Ku Klux Klan's brutality. Such approved revisions to the curriculum and textbooks in Texas are causing outrage, as Jon Marcus reports

If how we understand our past depends on who writes the textbooks, the Texas State Board of Education has made itself a wellspring of American history. History, that is, with an ideological bent.

A Republican majority on the elected Texas board has approved new standards for textbooks and school curricula that are so contentious that a campaign has been launched to remove them from office in the autumn.

Their revisions include playing down the fact that some of the nation's founding statesmen owned slaves, changing the name of the transatlantic slave trade to the "Atlantic triangular trade" and listing negative consequences of affirmative-action policies meant to address previous racial imbalances. Perhaps even more shocking is the de-emphasising of the civil rights movement and of the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan.

The word "capitalism" is to be replaced with "free enterprise", and teachers are also being told to downplay the separation of church and state - and the man who championed that idea, Thomas Jefferson - while stressing that Jefferson and the others who founded this secular nation were driven by Christian principles.

Because heavily populated Texas buys textbooks for 4.8 million students, its influence on publishers extends beyond its borders. Independent groups affiliated with the Tea Party movement are now calling for the same changes to history curricula in Georgia and Tennessee.

"There has developed on the Right this fevered myth that public schools and textbooks and textbook publishers are all out to demonise the United States and important historical figures. I call it a fevered myth because it's simply not true," says Dan Quinn, a former textbook editor and communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, which is campaigning for voters to dump the conservative bloc on the education board in an election that promises to be almost as polarising as the presidential race.

"What we've seen in Texas is public education becoming increasingly politicised, and the State Board of Education has become something like a ground zero in the culture wars - for the country, frankly, because the textbook market here is so big," Quinn says.

Historical context

Those proposing changes to the curricula, however, argue that history must be taught in the context of the times rather than through the prism of contemporary values.

"What you want to do is look at the things that happened in light of what the people at the time were experiencing and their values," says Hal Rounds, attorney, Tea Party member and spokesman for the group pushing revisions to the way that history is taught in Tennessee.

At the time that the United States was founded, Rounds says: "The whole world was pretty much a pattern of master-servant relationships, whether it was serfdom or slavery. Everybody had a boss who had arbitrary control over them. What our founders invented was that each man should be his own master. And they are coming out of a social organisation where they had had obedience to the king, which was a pretty dramatic arbitrary control system. So that was a radical thought for the times." However, Rounds' Tennessee campaign for revising textbooks is perhaps less nuanced. "No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the founding fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership," it says.

Given that African slavery had existed in the North American British colonies for 168 years by the time the US Constitution was drafted in 1787, Rounds says, "Blaming our founders because they didn't completely exorcise this demon is like being impatient with the Wright brothers because they didn't invent a 747. We need to understand just how remarkable a thing they did," he explains, without the filter of criticism of their slaveholding that has been incorporated into textbooks since the 1960s.

"There is a political trend in education circles to think, `We've idolised these people for so long, we should point out everything that's wrong with them'," he adds.

Racial divisions

But there are other, far more personal repercussions from the changes to these lessons, says Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

"Teaching the benevolent aspects of slavery does even further harm to our ancestors who were unfortunately enslaved," Bledsoe says. The revisionists "are saying they did not matter then and they don't matter now".

He says that changing the history curriculum "will increase racial divisions as it vindicates white privilege and whitewashes violence against minorities. What it says is that there is a natural order of things, so what occurred in the past is therefore justified."

The NAACP is among several civil rights groups that have protested the Texas measures. Lawmakers in California, the biggest state, for instance, resolved to buy no textbooks that have any changes driven by the Texas conservatives.

It is worth at this point emphasising quite how divisive these changes are, even on the Right. Conservative education thinktank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example, opposes the Texas revisions, saying they are full of "misrepresentations at every turn", including in their "glossing over of slavery". It has complained that "slavery and segregation are all but ignored, while religious influences are grossly exaggerated".

Other critics include the committee of nine teachers and university academics appointed, and then largely ignored, by the Texas State Board of Education. They had been asked to propose a new curriculum free of political bias.

The conservative board members' changes to that proposed curriculum "reflect their lack of historic knowledge and their failure to listen to the appointed citizen review committees," the committee wrote. Six of the nine added their "collective disgust" that their work had been "distorted".

In Georgia, a Republican state senator has introduced what he calls the Teach Freedom Act, which requires instruction about the efforts of early national leaders to end slavery, and "the mandate of the British government that required slavery in the colonies". This has added confusion to the controversy, as, in fact, the British House of Commons passed a resolution in 1735 affirming a short-lived decision that slavery in Georgia be banned, and many national leaders including Jefferson eventually freed some, but not all, of their slaves.

Most northern states abolished slavery by 1808, but the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 increased the need for labour in the South, resulting in slavery becoming so woven into the culture of the region that it was almost impossible to curb without causing the collapse of the economy.

"What we have to do is recognise that, yes, slavery was bad," says Rounds. "But that's just what we knew then." And the cotton produced by armies of African slaves, he adds, "was our main source of foreign commerce".

Political indoctrination

The Texas decision is too recent to have affected textbooks yet. And Quinn insists he is confident that, while the education board can influence how material is taught in schools, textbook publishers will be reluctant to make wholesale changes to the facts.

"A lot of this depends on the willingness of publishers to corrupt their own products," he says, adding that, given the purchasing power of Texas, "there's no doubt publishers are watching very closely what happens in these elections this year".

Some opponents of the changes and proposed changes to the history curricula in all of these states say that those behind them are trying to indoctrinate a new generation of arch conservatives - something proponents do not necessarily refute. "Of course it's political," one member of the Texas board told a critic at a public hearing.

But Quinn believes that education should be left to educators. "It's always a bad idea when decisions about what students learn in their classrooms are based on the political and personal beliefs of whatever party controls the board that makes those decisions," he says. "It's far better to rely on the expertise of teachers and scholars who understand American history, who have studied American history."

The other danger is that what is taught swings back and forth depending on which party is in power. When creationists were elected to the Kansas Board of Education in the 1990s, they voted for the requirement that the teaching of evolution be diluted. Two years later, moderates retook control and restored the original curriculum. Two years after that, the creationists won again. After four years, the moderates came back into power. "What you create is this sort of educational schizophrenia," Quinn says.

But Tea Party member Rounds remains convinced that history education has gone too far in one direction: leftward. Political correctness, he says, obscures the context in which choices were made and the successes of the leaders who made them. "We need to look at how we've actually behaved, and whether people have benefited from it, and not propagandised it," he says.

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