April 11, 2010
History and Ideology in TextbooksBy Rick Moran
Last month, the Texas State Board of Education tentatively approved changes in social studies texts that set off much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the academic and cultural left.
Would that changes made by the very same Board of Education back in 1997 elicited similar cries of outrage from the left when several jaw-dropping alterations were made to Texas schoolbooks in order to please liberal constituencies. The complaints back then came mostly from conservatives who saw our national narrative altered in order to appease the multiculturalists. It appears that now that the shoe is on the other foot, a much bigger issue must be made of these ideologically inspired changes in history curriculum. Why this is so speaks more to our culture wars than any attempt to improve the accuracy of textbooks.
There is nothing new in complaining about the ideological tilt in the study of American history in our nation's schools. And the debate certainly isn't limited to Texas, as one recent poll shows nearly half of American parents with children in primary or secondary public schools believing that history textbooks are inaccurate, while fully 60% believe that "most school textbooks are more focused on being politically correct than ensuring accuracy."
There is a great misunderstanding by us laypeople over the significance of certain historical events and personalities. The confusion comes about when we start conflating the study of history with the teaching of history. The two are mutually exclusive propositions, with the former being concerned with discovering what happened and the latter concerned with passing on knowledge. It is the question of what knowledge gleaned from the study of history should be passed on that creates these ideological food fights and drives both sides to emphasize favored constituencies at the expense of objective accuracy.
Where we begin to get into trouble is in failing to recognize the enormous complexity of our history and substituting a "special narrative" that highlights a point of view driven by politics rather than scholarship. In this sense, it isn't necessarily inaccurate to downplay the role of Thomas Jefferson in our founding, as the Texas School Board voted to do last month. There will be nothing historically false in the text about Jefferson. He just won't receive what many historians believe should be the kind of attention he deserves in the classroom.
Is this inaccurate? It can be argued as such, but it is perhaps not as egregious a sin as, for example, devoting more classroom time to the fight for civil rights than is spent examining the Revolutionary War. No doubt civil rights history is important, but we should be constrained to point out that there would be no civil rights movement in the United States unless there was an independent nation to begin with. Such logic escapes most ideologues, who seek to put their imprint on what our children learn of American history regardless of common sense or proportion.
Time is the key. There are only so many school days, so many lesson plans, so many personalities and events that can be squeezed into a school year, inviting this kind of controversy that plays out across the nation when states seek to alter history textbooks. By de-emphasizing Jefferson, the Texas School Board is going to give Jefferson Davis's inaugural address a fresh look by comparing it with Lincoln's address. There will be nothing "inaccurate" about this except that some historians believe it to be a waste of time to even make the effort when other events and people in American history cry out for recognition.
Other changes authorized by the Texas School Board deal with current arguments in the academy over issues like the role of religion in our founding. Specifically, Texas conservatives pushed through changes that reflect their view that the Founding Fathers envisioned a Christian nation while downplaying the separation of church and state. That issue is particularly contentious since many conservatives see the courts using that wording as justification for what they consider an attack on their beliefs. What the founders actually intended is a matter of some debate, but few historians would go so far as to state explicitly that they wished to promote the concept of a Christian nation.
The passion of evangelical Christians who seek to justify a more dominant role for religion in civic society by interpreting the past in a decidedly different manner from many academic historians' views may be admirable in some quarters, but it is less than welcome when applied to changing history textbooks. There may indeed be differing interpretations about what the founders believed about the separation of church and state. But by not recognizing opposing views, the Texas School Board is choosing the winner of a debate in academic circles for which no victor has been declared.
Indeed, conservatives seeking to put their imprint on the curriculum -- just as liberals are known to do -- are demonstrating a basic ignorance of history as an academic discipline. Ron Briley, Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School, writing for the History News Network, gives both a teacher's perspective and a historian's sense of proportion to the problem:
The question is not simply which facts, but whose facts. It is a matter of perspective. The history of Western settlement may differ depending upon whether the story is told from the point of view of a pioneer or Native American. In fact, it seems to be the concept of multiple perspectives that most frightens those seeking to impose absolute standards upon the schools.
What Briley is proposing is the radical notion that history should be taught to children in such a way as to develop their abilities to think for themselves by presenting differing perspectives on the same event:
It is the fostering of critical thinking to which the Texas State Board seems most opposed. Rather than encouraging students to investigate the role of religion in the forging of the American nation, students are instructed to accept that the founders envisioned a Christian nation. According to the Texas standards, the Second Amendment is to be treated as an absolute, rather than presenting alternative interpretations and letting students reach their own conclusions. After all, the First Amendment freedom of speech is not recognized by the courts as absolute. It is important to examine the role of Ronald Reagan in ending the Cold War, but it is equally essential to appreciate the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, for American history must be placed within the global context in which students will be living during the twenty-first century.
Teaching is not dictation. It is not the simple transference of knowledge from one person to another. That kind of straight-line thinking leads to automatons, not critically thinking, independent-minded citizens. Rather, teaching should be about encouraging students' minds to expand and grow. The very best teachers lay out a path that motivates students to choose their own road in the journey to enlightenment. Those are the teachers you remember from your own school experience. The process of learning was almost effortless, and there was excitement not in passing a test or achieving some class award, but in the sheer joy of knowing something you did not know before.
But conservatives in Texas and liberals in many other places don't quite see it that way. Their notion of "education" consists of imparting an ideologically tinged set of "facts" in the classroom that seek to narrow rather than expand a student's mind. As it is with elevating the role of Ronald Reagan in ending the cold war (at the expense of Gorbachev, who many historians believe had a large role in that process), so it is with the over-hyping of the role some minorities have played in American history in order to slavishly satisfy an instinct to be politically correct. Both approaches are wrong. Both lose sight of how American history should be taught. And both fail to grasp the simple notion that there isn't enough time to fully satisfy everyone's idea of what our children should learn.
Most people who are interested in American history learn far more about this country from reading outside the classroom than inside. The great biographies of great men and women, along with compelling narrative histories about great events, fill in the gaps in our knowledge that a limited classroom experience put there. Some of us may even be curious enough to read more academic treatments of history, where the great debates over people and events reveal schisms that date to the founding of the republic.
It is perhaps too much to ask to divorce ideology entirely from decisions on what to teach our students about the American experiment. These school board decisions are, after all, exercises in democracy. If the board members are not elected directly by the people, then they are appointed by someone who was.
But we can ask those responsible for more forbearance as it relates to what should be one of the goals of teaching American history to our children in the first place: the opportunity to pass on to the next generation the incredible story of our founding and growth while inculcating a national identity in the minds of those who will be responsible one day for keeping and holding that patrimony of liberty.
Rick Moran is blog editor of American Thinker.