Mariah Blake describes some deeply disturbing developments in the ongoing process of writing new social studies textbook standards in Texas, which, due to the state’s size and textbook purchasing power, end up influencing what students are taught nationwide:
When the process began last January, the Texas Education Agency assembled a team to tackle each grade. In the case of eleventh-grade U.S. history, the group was made up of classroom teachers and history professors—that is, until [Texas State Board of Education member and evolution denialist Don] McLeroy added a man named Bill Ames. Ames—a volunteer with the ultra- conservative Eagle Forum and Minuteman militia member who occasionally publishes angry screeds accusing “illegal immigrant aliens” of infesting America with diseases or blasting the “environmentalist agenda to destroy America”—pushed to infuse the standards with his right-wing views and even managed to add a line requiring books to give space to conservative icons, “such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority,” without any liberal counterweight. But for the most part, the teachers on the team refused to go along. So Ames put in a call to McLeroy, who demanded to see draft standards for every grade and then handed them over to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank founded by his benefactor, James Leininger. The group combed through the papers and compiled a list of seemingly damning omissions. Among other things, its analysts claimed that the writing teams had stripped out key historical figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Pat Hardy, a Republican board member who has sat in on some of the writing-team meetings, insists this isn’t true. “No one was trying to remove George Washington!” she says. “That group took very preliminary, unfinished documents and drew all kinds of wrongheaded conclusions.”
Nevertheless, the allegations drummed up public outrage, and in April the board voted to stop the writing teams’ work and bring in a panel of experts to guide the process going forward—“expert,” in this case, meaning any person on whom two board members could agree. In keeping with the makeup of the board, three of the six people appointed were right-wing ideologues, among them Peter Marshall, a Massachusetts-based preacher who has argued that California wildfires and Hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for tolerating gays, and David Barton, former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Both men are self-styled historians with no relevant academic training—Barton’s only credential is a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University—who argue that the wall of separation between church and state is a myth.
When the duo testified before the board in September, Barton, a lanky man with a silver pompadour, brought along several glass display cases stuffed with rare documents that illustrate America’s Christian heritage, among them a battered leather Bible that was printed by the Congress of the Confederation in 1782, a scrap of yellowing paper with a biblical poem scrawled by John Quincy Adams, and a stack of rusty printing plates for McGuffey Readers, popular late-1800s school books with a strong Christian bent. When he took to the podium that afternoon, Barton flashed a PowerPoint slide showing thick metal chains. “I really like the analogy of a chain—that we have all these chains that run through American history,” he explained in his rapid-fire twang. But, he added, in the draft social studies standards, the governmental history chain was riddled with gaps. “We don’t mention 1638, the first written constitution in America … the predecessor to the U.S. Constitution,” he noted as a hot pink “1638” popped up on the screen. By this he meant the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which called for a government based on the “Rule of the Word of God.” Barton proceeded to rattle off roughly a dozen other documents that pointed up the theocratic leaning of early American society, as the years appeared in orange or pink along the length of the chain.
Barton’s goal is to pack textbooks with early American documents that blend government and religion, and paint them as building blocks of our Constitution. In so doing, he aims to blur the fact that the Constitution itself cements a wall of separation between church and state. But his agenda does not stop there. He and the other conservative experts also want to scrub U.S. history of its inconvenient blemishes—if they get their way, textbooks will paint slavery as a relic of British colonialism that America struggled to cast off from day one and refer to our economic system as “ethical capitalism.” They also aim to redeem Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy, a project McLeroy endorses. As he put it in a memo to one of the writing teams, “Read the latest on McCarthy—He was basically vindicated.”
On the global front, Barton and company want textbooks to play up clashes with Islamic cultures, particularly where Muslims were the aggressors, and to paint them as part of an ongoing battle between the West and Muslim extremists. Barton argues, for instance, that the Barbary wars, a string of skirmishes over piracy that pitted America against Ottoman vassal states in the 1800s, were the “original war against Islamic Terrorism.” What’s more, the group aims to give history a pro-Republican slant—the most obvious example being their push to swap the term “democratic” for “republican” when describing our system of government. Barton, who was hired by the GOP to do outreach to black churches in the run-up to the 2004 election, has argued elsewhere that African Americans owe their civil rights almost entirely to Republicans and that, given the “atrocious” treatment blacks have gotten at the hands of Democrats, “it might be much more appropriate that … demands for reparations were made to the Democrat Party rather than to the federal government.” He is trying to shoehorn this view into textbooks, partly by shifting the focus of black history away from the civil rights era to the post-Reconstruction period, when blacks were friendlier with Republicans.
Barton and Peter Marshall initially tried to purge the standards of key figures of the civil rights era, such as César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall, though they were forced to back down amid a deafening public uproar. They have since resorted to a more subtle tack; while they concede that people like Martin Luther King Jr. deserve a place in history, they argue that they shouldn’t be given credit for advancing the rights of minorities. As Barton put it, “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.” Ergo, any rights people of color have were handed to them by whites—in his view, mostly white Republican men.
Hopefully in the long run the death of the paper-based publishing industry will mitigate this problem, but in the meantime–yikes!