JULY 14, 2009
The Culture Wars' New Front: U.S. History Classes in Texas
By STEPHANIE SIMON
The fight over school curriculum in Texas, recently focused on biology, has entered a new arena, with a brewing debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms.
The Texas Board of Education, which recently approved new science standards that made room for creationist critiques of evolution, is revising the state's social studies curriculum. In early recommendations from outside experts appointed by the board, a divide has opened over how central religious theology should be to the teaching of history.
Three reviewers, appointed by social conservatives, have recommended revamping the K-12 curriculum to emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history. Two of them want to remove or de-emphasize references to several historical figures who have become liberal icons, such as César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.
"We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it," said Rev. Peter Marshall, a Christian minister and one of the reviewers appointed by the conservative camp.
Three other reviewers, all selected by politically moderate or liberal members of the board, recommended less-sweeping changes to the existing curriculum. But one suggested including more diverse role models, especially Latinos, in teaching materials. "We have tended to exclude or marginalize the role of Hispanic and Native American participants in the state's history," said Jesús F. de la Teja, chairman of the history department at Texas State University.
Social studies teachers from Texas are meeting this summer to write new standards. They can accept, reject or modify the six reviewers' suggestions, all of which were made individually. The teachers' recommendations are sent to the 15-member board of education, a conservative-dominated body that has authority to revise standards.
The three reviewers appointed by the moderate and liberal board members are all professors of history or education at Texas universities, including Mr. de la Teja, a former state historian. The reviewers appointed by conservatives include two who run conservative Christian organizations: David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, a group that promotes America's Christian heritage; and Rev. Marshall, who preaches that Watergate, the Vietnam War and Hurricane Katrina were God's judgments on the nation's sexual immorality. The third is Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of public affairs at American University.
The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America's founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man's fall and inherent sinfulness, or "radical depravity," which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances.
The curriculum, they say, should clearly present Christianity as an overall force for good -- and a key reason for American exceptionalism, the notion that the country stands above and apart.
"America is a special place and we need to be sure we communicate that to our children," said Don McLeroy, a leading conservative on the board. "The foundational principles of our country are very biblical.... That needs to come out in the textbooks."
But the emphasis on Christianity as a driving force is disputed by some historians, who focus on the economic motivation of many colonists and the fractured views of religion among the Founding Fathers. "There appears to me too much politics in some of this," said Lybeth Hodges, a professor of history at Texas Woman's University and another of the curriculum reviewers.
Some outside observers argue that curriculum analysts should be trained academics. "It's important to have trained historians establishing the framework," said David Vigilante, associate director of the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The conservative Christian reviewers, in turn, are skeptical of the professional historians' emphasis on multiculturalism, views stated most forcefully by Mr. de la Teja but echoed by Ms. Hodges. Reaching for examples of achievement by different racial and ethnic groups is divisive, Mr. Barton said, and distorts history.
The standards that the school board eventually settles on won't dictate day-to-day lesson plans; that is up to individual teachers. But they will offer clear guidelines for educators -- and also for publishers.
Nearly every state has its own curriculum standards, and there are scores of social studies texts to choose from at most grade levels, so what happens in Texas won't necessarily affect other states. But the Texas market is huge, so most big publishers aggressively seek approval from the board, in some cases adopting the majority's editing suggestions nearly verbatim.
While the battle in Texas is just heating up, the tug-of-war over how to present history dates back nearly 150 years, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor of education. A single paragraph in a third-grade text might seem insignificant. But it is a powerful symbol, he said, "because schools remain the most important venue for teaching our kids who we are."
A CLOSER LOOK
Some suggestions put forth by outside analysts appointed to review Texas K-12 social studies standards. Read the full report by each reviewer at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/social/experts.html
Curriculum changes recommended by reviewers appointed by social conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education:
Replace Thurgood Marshall with Harriet Tubman or Sam Houston.
In first grade, students are expected to study the contributions of Americans who have influenced the course of history. Rev. Peter Marshall, a reviewer, calls Thurgood Marshall -- who as a lawyer argued Brown v. Board of Education and later became the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court -- a weak example.
Delete Anne Hutchinson from a list of colonial leaders
Students learn about colonial history in the fifth grade, and three reviewers suggested that the standards not include Anne Hutchinson, a 17th century figure, among a list of significant leaders. Ms. Hutchinson was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for teaching religious views at odds with the officially sanctioned faith.
Delete César Chávez from a list of figures who modeled active participation in the democratic process
Two reviewers objected to citing Mr. Chávez, who led a strike and boycott to improve working conditions for immigrant farmhands, as an example of citizenship for fifth-graders. "He's hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation," Rev. Marshall wrote.
Emphasize study of original documents
The three reviewers appointed by social conservatives on the board all say students should study more original documents, rather than relying on a textbook author to interpret them. The current standards rely too much on supplementary material such as poetry, folktales and art, they say, and too little on original documents and historical narratives.
Include more study of religious revival movements
Evangelist Billy Graham should be included on a list of transformational leaders of the 20th century and students in fifth and eight grades should study the colonial-era religious revival known as the Great Awakening as a force "in shaping a national identity," suggests reviewer Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of public affairs at American University.
Replace references to America's "democratic" values with "republican" values
Reviewer David Barton suggests swapping out "republican" for "democratic" in teaching materials. As he explains: "We don't pledge allegiance to the flag and the democracy for which it stands."
Curriculum changes recommended by reviewers appointed by moderate and liberal members of the Texas State Board of Education:
Tone down emphasis on the Cold War
Reviewer Lybeth Hodges, a history professor at Texas Woman's University, suggests revising the standards that set current events in the Cold War framework of democracy versus communism. She calls for adding study of Arab nations and Islam.
Add more Latino historical figures
Reviewer Jesús F. de la Teja, a former state historian, calls for adding names such as Juan de Oñate, who led the Spanish expedition that settled New Mexico and José Antonio Navarro, a proponent of Texas independence. He also recommends a deeper study of Texas history.
Reword references to minorities' "contributions" to society
Mr. de la Teja argues that it marginalizes women and people of color to talk about their "contributions to society," as though they are standing outside and only offering a few crumbs of value. He prefers standards to use the phrase "role in society," which he says emphasizes that minorities have a significant place in culture and history.
.Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@...