Peter Marshall Review of Texas Social Studies Standards–Part 2

We continue with our discussion of Peter Marshall’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.

Due to time constraints, I will not devote as much space to Marshall as I did to Barton. In fact, this will be my final post on the Texas History Standards controversy as I will be taking a brief vacation from blogging while I try to make some serious headway on my book, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: An Historical Primer for Christians.”

In his critique of the Texas Standards’s approach to Constitutional government, Marshall writes:

At all levels of education, K-12, attention must be paid to the basic concepts that underlie the American tradition of constitutional law government. Further, it is impossible for students to understand American civilization if they do not learn the sources of those concepts. For example, the separation of powers in our Federal government is rooted in the Founding Fathers’ clear understanding of the sinfulness of man. James Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution, studied under the Presbyterian minister president of the College of New Jersey, Dr. John Witherspoon. Witherspoon taught Madison that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that the only human remedy for this is effective government, which has to be in a “mixed and balanced form.” Under the tutelage of Dr. Witherspoon, Madison came to accept the Biblical teaching of the sinfulness of man, and quaintly expressed this belief in Federalist Paper # 51: “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison, Washington, Hamilton, Jay, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Rush, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Elias Boudinot, Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, Robert Treat Paine, Richard Stockton, James Wilson, William Patterson, and many other Founding Fathers believed that because of man’s sinfulness, no one is to be entrusted with the absolute power of government. Hence, they rejected monarchy and gave us the separation of powers in our form of government.

I am intrigued by this suggestion. Though I would need to go back and look at all of the founders he lists to see if they made arguments for mixed government based on original sin, it would seem that Madison and others may have been indirectly influenced by the kind of Calvinism promoted by the likes of John Witherspoon at places like Princeton. Of course one would have to advance this argument prudently and cautiously. For example, nowhere does Madison say that self-interest is rooted in original sin.

But if Marshall is right here, what do we make of the rather utopian ideas about the nature of humankind proposed by those champions of republican political thought or civic humanism? Doesn’t the virtue necessary to make a republic work require a rather positive view of human nature? It would seem,as I and others have argued, that a commitment to civic humanism might require an approach to virtue that requires citizens to embrace more of an Enlightenment understanding of human nature, or at least a view of human nature that meshed Enlightenment and Calvinist views of human nature.

Perhaps the most controversial part of Marshall’s report is his discussion of the Social Studies requirements that “seem deficient and should be rewritten.” Marshall argues that many of the “ones concerning history seem to be compiled by someone more concerned to be ‘politically correct’ than to accurately portray American history.”

For example:

Marshall does not think Texas schoolchildren should learn about Henrietta King or Thurgood Marshall. He wants to replace them with Harriet Tubman and Sam Houston or “hundreds of others” who might be better suited to teach kids about diversity. So basically Marshall thinks that children should not learn about the NAACP lawyer in the landmark Brown v. Board decision who also happened to be the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Wow!

In a section for second graders on community in which students are asked to “identify some governmental services,” Marshall wants to replace “libraries, schools, and parks” with “fire and rescue department, the police, and school buses.” I have no idea why he thinks this is an important change.

In a fifth grade standard that asks students to “describe the accomplishments of significant colonial leaders,” Marshall wants to remove Anne Hutchinson because she “didn’t accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble.” So, in other words, Marshall does not want students to learn about the heroic woman who stood up to the quasi-theocratic commitments of Massachusetts Bay and represented the idea of liberty of conscience in matters of religion. If you want to use the colonial era to look for the roots of the United States (which I have argued elsewhere in this series is not always the best approach) then I would think you would look to Hutchinson, not the Massachusetts Council, as your representative historical figure. (In The Light and the Glory, Marshall covers Hutchinson in a chapter entitled “The Pruning of the Lord’s Vineyard.”).

Like David Barton, Marshall rejects the inclusion of Cesar Chavez in the standards. If the Texas Board of Education adopts this suggestion will they have to rename the several dozen schools in Texas named after Chavez?

According to Marshall, the list of scientists and inventors that fifth graders should study is “pathetic.” He wants to replace Neil Armstrong, John Audubon, Benjamin Baneker, and Clarence Birdseye with Thomas Watson, the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell. Marshall probably has a point here. Students should know about the Wright Brothers, Ford (warts and all), and Bell. But does he really want to remove Neil Armstrong? What about Clarence Birdseye? Most Americans travel by air a lot less than they eat frozen foods.

In the end, Marshall’s report is a lot less detailed than Barton’s, but it raises many of the same questions. In order to be fair, I would like to also offer analysis of the other conservative reviewer, Daniel Dreisbach and the reports of the three reviewers selected by the more moderate and liberal members of the Texas Board. Since I will not have the time to do this in a timely fashion, I will let you decide.

4 thoughts on “Peter Marshall Review of Texas Social Studies Standards–Part 2

  1. Re James Madison and Fed. 51 it's clear that Madison posits man's nature as partially depraved, NOT totally depraved. It's neither Calvinism nor French Enlightenment but rather somewhere in between, more Scottish Enlightenment than anything else.

    And by the way, belief that man has a partially depraved nature is NOT the same thing as “original sin.” I have quotations from figures on Marshall's list explicitly denying the concept of original sin.


  2. I would guess that Marshall's preference for fire and police departments stems from a desire to minimize government intervention in combination with conservative law and order sentiment.

    I also bet that Marshall supports school vouchers; he would not see education as an inherently government-provided service.


  3. I think Marshall is sort-of right on the influence on Christian thought on the constitutional/governmental thought of many of the Framers like Madison. However, I think he's right for the wrong reasons. Many of them were strongly influenced by Christian ideas on government not because they so strongly believed them, but because the ideas themselves (natural rights, necessity of government to reign in individual and corporate sin, separation of powers, etc.) were rooted in Christian – specifically Calvinist – tradition.

    I've been looking at a great book on this, which examines the Calvinist roots of Western thoughts on government and rights and argues that these roots are much more important than the Enlightenment roots that are so often proclaimed. It's called “The Reformation of Rights” and is by John Witte, professor of law at Emory.


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