Today I listened to a commentary on the recent Texas Board of Education decision to approve a social studies curriculum that will add a significantly more conservative slant to history and economics textbooks in the state. Some of the changes include denials of separation of church and state, a more friendly tone towards the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and a removal of Thomas Jefferson as one of the writers who encouraged revolution in the 18th century. The leader of the conservative faction, Dr. Don McLeroy, stated “We are adding balance. History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”
McLeroy is a dentist by profession, one of an assortment of professions represented in the group...none of which are historians. Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, makes the point in his article (which I will reference) that while these board members claim to be encouraging "critical thinking" among the students, they are doing no such thing. They are establishing a lens through which to see the past, and essentially telling these students that they must look through it.
This is terribly frustrating to me for several reasons. First, I think that this perfectly illustrates why so many students are completely disinterested in history, particularly on the high school level. These textbooks, with their numerous changes, deletions, and insertions, have whitewashed and watered down the past into something that is unteachable and dull. It quickly becomes about names, facts, and dates that have been agreed upon as the "right thing" for the student to get and understand in order to graduate, rather than a reflective and critical study of past events and their relation to us today. Here's a thought, as suggested by podcast host Dan Carlin on his latest Common Sense episode: what if the students were given a list of famous names, and it was their assignment to decide which names should be put into the history textbook, based on serious study of those individuals and organized debate? Carlin argued that working through that debate alone would teach them more critical thinking than any of the dry text contained in one of their books. I'm inclined to agree with him.
Secondly, this shows us how political parties have altered the history books to push their agenda. Frankly, I've always leaned more towards the conservative side, but it disgusts me to see this happening. Both sides and both parties are to blame. Removing separation of church and state from a textbook simply because you don't agree with it? That is completely outrageous. Anyone with a level head knows that our country was established with that principle in mind, and Thomas Jefferson (surprise surprise, the other guy they omitted) has written much on the subject. Young students are losing the full grasp of our history, and it doesn't solve anything to include what's missing if you're going to cut out everything else!
I wonder why we feel that our students need a filtered view of the past. If we present all sides, all viewpoints, and realize that history has always been based upon interpretation, the students will benefit. Teachers should also make clear that any history textbook is not The Bible of all historical knowledge. At the same time, we must realize that there are certain facts of what happened that remain fairly constant through time. I'm certainly not saying that all of history is open to however we interpret it....because, at least right now, it seems fairly certain that aliens did NOT help the Egyptians build the pyramids. But I am saying that students should become more involved in the historical process earlier on, even before college. Presenting them with primary sources is the key. What better way to learn about the past than to read the documents that were written at the time? Rather than making them read a dry paragraph about Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century in a textbook, why not have them read the Declaration of Independence and Common Sense? They could even read letters or pamphlets written at the time. That is the way to study history, to truly engage with it.
I'm tired of liberals bashing conservatives for not including the stories of minorities in the same way that I'm sick of conservatives attacking liberals for neglecting the Christian aspect of American history. Both sides miss the point, because they lack the nuanced complexity that is inevitable in our past. The Founders were NOT Christians in our sense of the word, nor were they seeking to establish a Christian nation. (For more on this, see Steven Waldman's book Founding Faith) At the same time, they were men of Christian values and principles, some of them being Deists. They did seek to establish clear separation of church and state in the new nation, not necessarily to keep the church out of the state but rather to keep the state from interfering with matters of the church. This is just one example of the kind of fascinating detail that gets painted over when political factions get involved within our educational system.