This Politico article on some of the outright lies in textbooks designed to meet Texas' state history curriculum standards infuriated me like little else.
For those who might be thinking, okay so Texas hates facts, why do I care? The answer is that Texas' textbook market is so large that the Texas State Board of Education dictates content for all history textbooks. Publishers don't want to release textbooks that they can't sell in Texas. So they apply Texas' standards everywhere by default.
As a historian, this situation drives me crazy because a bunch of non-historians in Texas are deciding the content of history textbooks for kids across the nation (and doing a terrible job of it). Do we let a bunch of non-doctors determine the content of medical school textbooks? Nope. Who writes law school textbooks? Lawyers and law professors.
But apparently, common sense doesn't apply for history. Sure, the folks on the Texas State Board of Education would argue that they are capable of making these judgments because they know something about history. But that's like you thinking that you should be an NFL coach because you won your fantasy football league last year.
Now make no mistake about it— this is not a rant against conservatives, conservatism, or teaching about conservative figures. Should we teach about Phyllis Schlafly in history classes? Absolutely. Newt Gingrich? Most definitely. Ayn Rand? Yup. Her too.
In fact, I'm teaching an entire college seminar on the rise of conservatism in the spring, and my students will read plenty about these and many other conservatives.
I also think that important white men have a valuable place in our history classes. Students should learn about Washington, Jefferson, and the like. That doesn't mean there isn't also room in history for critical grassroots leaders, and formerly ignored, but important, figures.
In addition, conservatives should understand that teaching students to question the decisions made by revered historical figures isn't anti-American or distorting history. Rather, it's encouraging students to evaluate the decisions made by leaders, not so that we can condemn them or hate America, but instead, so that we can understand their decision making— why did they decide to do what they did and what alternatives did they consider?
I found it fascinating to teach about Lincoln a few years ago. Many of my students got enraged when they found out that Lincoln wasn't the deity they had grown up believing that he was (and lest you think I portrayed him in a skewed manner, many of these students found the information on their own doing research papers). Does that mean that Lincoln wasn't a great man? Nope. He was one of our finest presidents. But he was human, and thus, imperfect. It's critical that our students get the complete historical picture.
To be crystal clear, my gripe is not with insisting that we teach about conservatives or famous Americans. It's with attempting to insert political propaganda into textbooks and failing to understand what the study of history is (no it's not just memorizing facts and dates). Yet, these are not even the worst crimes committed by the folks in Texas.
Nope. The worst crime is that these textbooks are riddled with factual errors. To cite an example from the Politico piece, countless historians could point to dozens of books that document how the segregated schools attended by African American children in no way had buildings or busses anywhere comparable to those schools that white students attended. Not. Even. Close.
People are entitled to their own political perspective, and our children should learn about all political perspectives. But there is ONE set of facts. One can be very, very conservative and accept facts. But apparently, that isn't the case with the members of the Texas Board of Education who'd prefer to turn history into fiction.