Messin’ With Texas: What We Can Learn from theTextbook Debacle

Texas has been in the news lately, and not in a good way. Its State Board of Education, which is firmly in the grip of the religious right, just took a meat axe to statewide history and social studies standards.

The board’s right-wing faction wants schoolchildren to learn about the alleged “Christian” roots of the United States. They believe separation of church and state is a myth and have crafted standards that cast doubt on that principle. They want to extol a right-wing version of bootstrap capitalism and preach simplistic forms of American exceptionalism.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar provided a window into the board’s mindset: prior to a May meeting, Dunbar decided to open things with a special invocation.

“I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses,” Dunbar said. “Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England…the same objective is present—a Christian land governed by Christian principles.

“I believe,” continued Dunbar, “the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it. I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country.”

One of Dunbar’s phrases is especially telling. Note her use of the words, “I like to believe….”

Indeed, that’s the problem with the entire religious right approach. It’s entirely anchored not in fact but in a collection of assertions that a band of fundamentalists find comforting. They like to believe them—even if there is absolutely no factual data behind them.

The scope of religious right delusions can be daunting. Remember, we’re dealing with a collection of people who are quite capable of arguing that the Grand Canyon was created by a particularly heavy rainstorm (not carved out by a river over millions of years) or insisting that fossils only appear ancient—carbon dating is just a deception of Satan. Is it any wonder that, when it comes to history, they simply make it up as they go along?

It’s mildly embarrassing when people believe this stuff privately and perhaps distressing when they foist it on children in Christian schools; it’s near criminal when it’s inserted into public education.

We have a problem when it comes to teaching history. Many school-age children look at the subject as a dry recitation of dates, names, and places, and their disdain has had an effect; polls show widespread ignorance of facts that should be basic. Many Americans can’t identify the Gettysburg Address, for example, or name the years World War II occurred.

Yet history can be taught in a way that challenges students and prods them to reflect not only on where we have been but where we might be going. Such a proposition horrifies the religious right. Its version of history is one where America never did wrong, it’s a country blessed by God to serve as an example for the world.

The religious right substitutes the promise of America for the reality of America. The promise—as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—is indeed inspiring. The implementation has sometimes been rocky.

Does that mean our country is wicked? No. It just means that as nation, we’ve sometimes fallen short of our ideals. A sober examination of this history can perhaps serve as an impulse to do better.

The religious right will have none of this. After all, how could a country ordained by God have sometimes so completely missed the mark?

The real tragedy in this approach is that it’s insulting. Many young people may be fuzzy on the facts, but that doesn’t mean they lack all ability to reason and think. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the story of the United States knows that it has not been one of constant progress. The simplistic, whitewashed, rally-around-the-flag version of history championed by the religious right is a surefire way to extinguish any spark for learning that may exist.

So what’s to be done about Texas? The most important thing is to contain the damage. Observers aren’t sure how the Texas vote might affect other states. Some say that because Texas buys so many textbooks, tomes tailored to the demands of that state are bound to end up elsewhere. Others insist that modern digital publishing makes it possible to produce “Texas only” editions of books.

I say it’s not worth the risk. “Texas-ized” history must be kept out of other states. California Senator Leland Yee introduced legislation to ensure that history texts produced for Texas stay out of the Golden State (the bill passed on May 28). Other states should follow suit. It’s time to put pressure on the textbook publishers and hit them where it matters most—the bottom line.

As Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, put it, “All those who value truth and academic objectivity must stand together to resist the revisionist history of the religious right. Only by boycotting Texas textbooks can academic credibility be maintained.”

Professional historians must also speak up. Biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and others are quick to object when creationists threaten the teaching of evolution. In Texas, the religious right is pushing “historical creationism.” We need the experts to shoot it down.

Texas lawmakers have a role to play as well. A recent poll taken by the Texas Freedom Network found that 72 percent of respondents believe that teachers and academics should write the social studies standards, not the Board of Education. The Texas legislature has the power to rein in this board; members should use it.

Finally, the Texas debacle should be a lesson to us all. A disaster on this scale didn’t just happen. It was planned. The religious right plotted to win control of the Board of Education. Its followers and activists used “culture war” issues to stir up the voters. First the board’s far-right bloc targeted science standards (although the damage there was less severe), then they moved on to history.

This was neither serendipitous nor a mere convergence of incidents leading to opportunity. It was a well thought-out, well-executed plot.

What might the religious right be scheming to do in other states? Perhaps we should find out.