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The strange case of Texas’s textbooks

posted by Daniel Vaca

At Washington Monthly, Mariah Blake comments on the ongoing controversy over Texas’s once-in-a-decade revision of its textbook standards. With standards for such subjects as English and science already revised, the current debate centers on Texas’s social studies standards. As Blake notes, textbook battles are “nothing new, especially in Texas.” But the current situation is unique in two ways.

First, the board tasked with revising the standards is dominated by such “ultraconservatives” as Peter Marshall, son of the late Senate chaplain of the same name and author of various books on America’s “Christian heritage,” and David Barton, whose organization’s web site describes him as founder of “a national pro-family organization that presents America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage.” Second, Texas currently wields more influence in the world of textbooks than usual, for the country’s largest textbook buyer—the cash-strapped state of California—has postponed textbook purchases for several years. All told, Texas and its textbook board currently possesses what Blake describes as “unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come”:

Barton’s goal is to pack textbooks with early American documents that blend government and religion, and paint them as building blocks of our Constitution. In so doing, he aims to blur the fact that the Constitution itself cements a wall of separation between church and state. But his agenda does not stop there. [...]

On the global front, Barton and company want textbooks to play up clashes with Islamic cultures, particularly where Muslims were the aggressors, and to paint them as part of an ongoing battle between the West and Muslim extremists. Barton argues, for instance, that the Barbary wars, a string of skirmishes over piracy that pitted America against Ottoman vassal states in the 1800s, were the “original war against Islamic Terrorism.” What’s more, the group aims to give history a pro-Republican slant—the most obvious example being their push to swap the term “democratic” for “republican” when describing our system of government. Barton, who was hired by the GOP to do outreach to black churches in the run-up to the 2004 election, has argued elsewhere that African Americans owe their civil rights almost entirely to Republicans and that, given the “atrocious” treatment blacks have gotten at the hands of Democrats, “it might be much more appropriate that . . . demands for reparations were made to the Democrat Party rather than to the federal government.” He is trying to shoehorn this view into textbooks, partly by shifting the focus of black history away from the civil rights era to the post-Reconstruction period, when blacks were friendlier with Republicans.

Read Blake’s entire piece here. For more detailed discussion of the goings-on in Texas, see historian John Fea’s blog series on the topic. Fea’s forthcoming book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Primer, promises to illuminate many of the historical issues that Texas’s textbook board finds so central to American history.

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