David Barton on the Texas Social Studies Standards: Part Two.

In part one of my analysis of David Barton’s report on the Texas Social Studies standards I tried to argue that students need to study history for reasons that are not solely connected to citizenship.

We both seem to agree that history has the potential to develop character traits in students, but Barton believes that history develops character through the kinds of historical subjects and figures that students study. I argued in my last post that it is actually the practice of doing history, regardless of the subject matter, that builds character in students and has the power to truly educate and transform them.

Let’s return to this point as we take a look at the next section of Barton’s report:

Barton believes that history offers training in citizenship by teaching students the following virtues:

Courage; trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, punctuality, and loyalty; integrity; respect and courtesy; responsibility, accountability, diligence, perseverance, and self-control; fairness, justice and freedom from prejudice; caring, kindness, empathy, compassion, consideration, patience, generosity, and charity; good citizenship, patriotism, concern for the common good and the community, and respect for authority and the law.

Amen. I hope that all students might learn these virtues from the study of history. “Respect and courtesy,” for example, can be gleaned by learning about fellow human beings from the past–even those with whom we disagree. History teaches “empathy” for people who are different than us. Can a twenty-first century history student show empathy when studying a nineteenth-century slaveholder? I hope so. And yes, history can teach “a concern for the common and the community.” By taking us into a world that is not our own, history forces us to leave the present and see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves. Isn’t this the bedrock principle behind any definition of “community?”

But, as I noted above, Barton believes that these kinds of virtues can only be cultivated through the study of the people who exemplify them. Since the real power of history for Barton is in students modeling themselves after heroic and virtuous figures then it certainly makes sense that he wants to pack the Texas curriculum with these kinds of historical actors. He thus advocates removing certain figures from the curriculum based upon their immoral behavior. Their lives do not exemplify the kinds of virtues he wants students to learn.

This, of course, is a blatant whitewashing of the past based upon Barton’s own sense of morality. Who gets to choose which figures are worthy of emulation? Granted, I do not want my children spending two weeks studying the history of serial killers, but I do think that they can learn something about courage from exploring the life of Anne Hutchinson, one of the figures who Barton wants to eliminate. Or consider Barton’s recommendation to remove Cesar Chavez from the standards. Certainly the people who named several dozen Texas schools after this labor leader must have thought that he was a person from the past who kids should look up to.

And even if one agrees with the basic tenets of Barton’s Christian faith and thinks that Christian theology should find its way into school history textbooks, it would seem that such a theology might also include the role of human sin in American society. If Hutchinson and Chavez were, as Barton seems to be implying, sinners who operated in history outside the will of God, does this mean that students should not study them?

But all of this misses the point. In the end, Barton’s understanding of the place of history in the school curriculum fails to understand the real power of history in educating students. Students do not learn virtue by modeling themselves after historical figures as much as they learn virtue through the act of doing history.

ADDENDUM: This, unfortunately, may be my last post analyzing the reports of the these Texas curriculum reviewers. Someone has removed the reports from Internet and I did not print them out. Hmmm…. If anyone has copies they can send me I would appreciate it.