By Mike Green
To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful. – Edward R. Murrow
The recent changes to the ‘standards’ for history textbooks in Texas go right to the heart of academics and their legitimacy as historians. The matter first came to my attention when the New York Times ran a story about the issue in mid-March.
These changes call into question the integrity of historians who write textbooks for publishers. As the New York Times illustrates, these proposed changes, which will be voted on later this month, are not just about the inclusion of additional historical facts. If that were the case, there would not be so much outrage on the part of the academic community.
Instead, the conservative majority on the State Board of Education (SBOE) is selectively excluding important bits of historical fact in an attempt to shape history to fit their own ideologies. David Bradley, the chair of the SBOE’s School Finance/Permanent School Fund committee, told the New York Times that he rejects “the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state” and that he would give $1,000 to charity in anyone could find this in the American Constitution.
Apparently Mr. Bradley was absent the day the Bill of Rights was discussed when he was in school. Both the 6th article and the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution specifically address the role of religion in the operation of government. At least since Gitlow v. New York, the 1st Amendment has been applied to the states through the 14th Amendment.
These components of the Constitution prevent the government from establishing a dominant religion. In 1962 Engle v. Vitale firmly illustrated that their was a wall of separation between church and state. Referring to the decision, Justice Black stated, “In 1785-1786, those opposed to the established Church, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson…opposed all religious establishments by law on grounds of principle… [and believed that]… all religious groups were placed on an equal footing so far as the State was concerned.”
Don McLeroy, a former chair of the SBOE, took another stance in an interview with PBS. He told the public broadcaster: “I would like to see the importance of religion to make sure that the role it played in the founding of our country and the acknowledgment of the founders’ dependence upon God that they wrote into the documents to make sure that that’s clearly presented.” In this spirit, the SBOE has sought to eliminate references to Jefferson, the separation of church and state, and the role of Mexican-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement.
The acts by the SBOE call into question the integrity of historians. If historians in both Canada and the United States do not begin to address this issue we are in danger of losing our legitimacy.
The issue arising out of this revision of the SBOE curriculum is the relationship between school boards and the publishing world. Since Texas is the second largest textbook buyer in the United States, publishers fall all over themselves to obtain the contract to publish approved textbooks. Furthermore, because the publisher publishes so many of these books they discount the price for other schools who may be using them unaware of the changes imposed by the SBOE.
The SBOE is on track to accept these new standards by the end of this week. However, outrage continues to grow in several sectors. First, the California Senate has introduced a bill that will not allow schools to use textbooks published according to SBOE standards. Second, academics are beginning to prepare for a possible boycott of publishers who agree to publish according to these standards. The Thomas Jefferson Movement has emerged as a coalition of teachers and academics who are proposing to counter these changes. I have also proposed boycotting publishers who abide by the “standards” of the SBOE on my own blog.
Texas’s market share means that many other states also use Texas textbooks. This is the real heart of the problem. Considering the fact that of the almost 70% of high school graduates who go to college, only 25% will actually finish. This means that for many this will be the only history that they will receive.