Art(ful) History in Texas

Don McLeroy is pleased. For the past two years, the Texas Board of Education member has been leading efforts to revamp the state’s public education curricula. Late last month, the board finished the job with a 9-5 vote to rewrite the social studies standards, presenting students with a radically conservative version of history.

McLeroy says the more than 200 revisions were only made in order to add balance to what was a liberal presentation of history. However, historians, academics, and civil liberties experts have decried the changes, accusing the board of rewriting history and presenting an inaccurate view of America—including the notion that this nation was based on Christian principles and that the founding fathers didn’t intend for there to be separation of church and state.

The new standards serve as publishing guidelines for writers of textbooks, and Texas is the second largest bulk purchaser of textbooks in the country. But how far publishers will go to sell books in such a lucrative market is a matter of debate. Some writers have argued that the board has gone too far, and no reputable publishing house will present history in the context that the new standards demand.

But in an interview this week, McLeroy indicated that the battle over textbooks is only one part of the conservative agenda. 

The ‘Supplementary’ Strategy

McLeroy is particularly pleased about a new provision that will allow the board to adopt supplemental materials, since last week the board voted to delay indefinitely the purchase of new science textbooks that include the changes McLeroy has lobbied for. Because new science textbooks are estimated to cost $350 million, the board opted to bridge the gap between the old and the new science standards with supplemental materials. The board will review and select the materials next spring.

Using supplemental materials may be something of a creationist cloak and dagger. In the past several years, recommendations that supplemental materials be introduced in public school science classrooms have been part of anti-evolution bills in states across the country as a way to sneak creationist literature into the curriculum.

Louisiana has been at the forefront of the supplemental materials battle since 2008, and lawmakers there have made it possible for school districts to sidestep any legitimate review process in adopting materials.

In 2004, the Dover Area School Board tried to introduce the ID textbook Of Pandas and People, published by the creationist Foundation for Thought and Ethics, into its science curriculum under the guise of “supplemental material.” After eleven parents challenged the board’s actions, Judge John E. Jones ruled that intelligent design was merely revamped creationism and was unconstitutional in public school science class.

Even though McLeroy will no longer be on the board (he lost his primary reelection bid this spring to a more mainstream Republican), McLeroy said he believes the supplemental materials provision will create greater flexibility in what material may be adopted for the classrooms. Rather than meet all the new standards, the material only has to address some of them. “It allows for a small publisher to be competitive in the process,” McLeroy said.

The board has not yet voted on whether to purchase social studies books, but those textbooks won’t be up for selection until 2012.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, “[a nonpartisan, grassroots] watchdog, monitoring far-right issues, organizations, money and leaders,” said it’s going to require a watchful eye to prevent board members from using the new provision to adopt creationist-friendly or intelligent design literature.

Quinn said that board members could reject material for factual errors. “But then it becomes a battle among board of education members over whether it’s accurate,” he said.

Last year, McLeroy successfully included in the Texas’ science standards such creationist code as “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records.” Another amendment says students will: “analyze and evaluate the scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.”

The wording could be used to justify the adoption of pro-intelligent design materials from organizations like the Discovery Institute, which guided McLeroy in adopting the new language. 

In addition to the issue of supplemental materials, the Texas Education Agency is now scrambling to complete its end-of-chapter tests, which are based on the new standards.

Since the vote, church and state watchdog groups have been contemplating their next step. In the meantime, the Texas American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties organizations are urging members to contact publishers asking them to not kowtow to the new standards.

Additionally, congressional redistricting will mean the entire 15-member board is up for election in 2012. Quinn said there’s a good chance that a fed-up public may replace conservative incumbents with a more moderate board. However, he fears that control of the board could swing back and forth between conservatives and moderates in elections every four years, much as it did in Kansas during its educational battles over evolution. “I’m afraid this could create a sort of educational schizophrenia where teachers aren’t sure what they’re supposed to teach,” he said.

Spirit of America

One of the new amendments places slavery as the third cause of the Civil War, behind states’ rights and sectionalism. Additionally, students must study the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis alongside the writings of Abraham Lincoln.

McLeroy says that he and other board members weren’t trying to ignore slavery as a cause of the Civil War. “There were multiple causes,” he said. Davis’ address, which reads eerily like a Tea Party manifesto, never mentions slavery, but the board makes no mention of teaching its own state’s Ordinance of Secession, which states:

(Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slaveholding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slaveholding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretenses and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.

Board members decry the accusation that they are trying to whitewash history. But when they cherry-pick through historical documents, ignoring their state’s own secession declaration, that denial rings hollow.

“I don’t think they did this because they are racists,” Quinn said. “I don’t think they did this because they don’t think slavery is abhorrent. It’s just that they see everything through an ideological prism.”

Rather than trying to present history as accurately as possible, it seems board members are rewriting it to fit their ideal of the future, and using the classroom to further that ideology. For instance, McLeroy said the board has added many Hispanic names to the curriculum, but it also downplays the struggles that countless Americans have made against oppression.

McLeroy said his goals have always been: Students should learn about “divine providence” and “In God We Trust”; children should understand the Constitution; they must understand that the United States is a “Constitutional republic”; and they must be taught the principles on which this country was founded, including “American exceptionalism.”

“The media has interpreted what we’ve been doing all wrong,” he said.

McLeroy may insist that he’s only about improving education with a more ‘balanced’ curriculum, but his numerous statements to the media—like last year’s comment that women and minorities should be thankful to the white male majority for giving them the right to vote—paint a pretty clear picture of his goals. 

Shortly before the final vote this spring McLeroy proposed an amendment declaring that muckraking journalists and modern-day historians are obsessed with oppression. His response: “[students should] contrast the tone [of those journalists and historians with]… the optimism of immigrants including Jean Pierre Godet as told in Thomas Kinkade’s The Spirit of America.”