David Barton on the Texas Social Studies Standards: Part Four

We continue with our discussion of David Barton’s review of the Texas Social Studies standards. You can get up to speed by scrolling down on this blog and viewing the previous posts.

In the section of his report on “Social Studies Skills” Barton sounds like a real history teacher. He wants to do away with vague Social Studies “skills” and get the students to think like historians.

If the object of this TEKS is to teach students to use their mind, then propose the type of historic forensic problems utilized by students throughout earlier generations of American history. For example, Robert Troup Paine (1829-1851) recorded that a problem students in his day addressed was “Whether the conduct of the patriots who destroyed the tea in Boston Harbor in 1773 is to be condemned.” Answering this question would require an application of the skills delineated in these TEKS.

A similar scenario could be proposed relative to the Fugitive Slave Law and the Underground Railroad; of whether to secede or remain in the United States; of whether to remain in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl or move elsewhere; whether to send troops to the relief of the Alamo or hold them to build a larger army for San Jacinto; or a plethora of other genuine historical debates and dilemmas which require analysis and a use of the mind but which also reinforce a knowledge of history, government, and geography.

As I said in a previous post, there is much we can commend about Barton’s concern over the way American history gets taught when it is held captive by “Social Studies.”

Barton then moves on to what he calls “Prioritization of Source Content.” In their current form, the Texas Social Studies standards suggest that teachers “use a variety of rich material” to teach their subjects. Such material should include biographies, poetry, songs, artwork, novels, speeches, letters, folktales, myths, legends, autobiographies, diaries, “landmark” Supreme Court cases, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Barton is concerned that “poetry, songs and artwork are presented to students 11 times more than “the documents creating the country whose history is being studied.” He is also concerned that there is “such an emphasis on sources recording the subjective feelings of specific individuals and so little emphasis on official state papers, organic documents, and governing laws that reflect the will of the nation.” He proposes that more focus should be given to documents such as the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the New England Confederation of 1643, the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, the Constitution of Carolina, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers. (He has similar lists of the kinds of speeches and letters that students should read).

It is clear that Barton has little use for social history. The most important sources are political, legal, and government documents. (I might also add that he favors those specific political, legal, and government documents that speak highly of the place of religion in American life).

He explains:

Students must learn that not all forms of information are equally credible and must be taught from the beginning how to prioritize sources and historical evidence: organic documents are of primary importance, legal and statutory documents next; then informational sources such as diaries, letters, biographies, autobiographies, and news sources; with novels and oral sources being toward the bottom of the list. Furthermore, students must recognize hearsay evidence or journalistic opinions and understand that they are given little weight; and even in documentary history, there are levels of sources, including primary, secondary, and tertiary sources; and confirmation from multiple sources is weightier than that from a single source; and sources “interpreting” history are only speculative opinions that are always less credible than authoritative sources presenting tangible documentable fact.

While I appreciate Barton’s concern that students should learn how to think critically about primary sources, I am not sure what to make of his idea that some sources deserve priority over others. Priority based upon what? Again, if the primary goal of studying American history is citizenship, then perhaps such an argument might make sense. But if the primary goal of studying history is to teach a certain way of thinking about the past (see my previous posts in this series), then it would seem that past worlds could be just as easily, if not more easily, reconstructed from the kind of “subjective feelings of specific individuals” that Barton does not like.

He concludes that “poets musicians, or artists should be studied in history–but only if they made significant contributions that helped shape the nation.” Barton uses the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley as an example. Barton believes that some of Wheatley’s poems are more important than others. Poems expressing her feelings about coming to America are worth studying. Students should also be aware of the fact that George Washington promoted her work. Again, Wheatley is only important for how she connects with the development of the nation-state, the ultimate end of the study of American history. Wheatley is not as important for what she might teach us about African-American history or women’s history or eighteenth-century culture.

This is Whig history at its worst. It is an approach to teaching history that fails to expose students to historical actors who did not have some connection to the development of the nation–or at least the nation as Barton understands it.