Houston Chronicle Op-Ed

In case you missed it, on July 26 the Sunday Houston Chronicle ran an op-ed of mine on the debate over the Texas social studies standards. The piece is no longer available on-line, but I have included the full text below.

HISTORY AND THE TEXAS BOARD OF EDUCATION

By John Fea

If you think the “culture wars” are over, think again.

The latest battle is being fought over American history. The Texas Board of Education, which is planning a revision of the state social studies curriculum this summer, is divided over what students should be learning about the nation’s past.

The conservative members of the board have chosen two outside reviewers who want to revamp the curriculum to include more of an emphasis on Christian and conservative themes..

Neither of these reviewers are historians.

One of them, Peter Marshall, is a Presbyterian minister best known for his book The Light and the Glory, a narrative of the early American past that claims to trace God’s providential plan for the United States.

The other reviewer is David Barton, a former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and an opponent of the separation of church and state. Barton is the founder and president of Wallbuilders, an organization that promotes the idea that America is a Christian nation.

Much of the discussion over the standards thus far has revolved around which historical figures should be included and which ones should not.

Both Marshall and Barton suggest removing Anne Hutchinson from the curriculum. Marshall describes her as a woman who “didn’t accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble.”

The conservative reviewers are not happy that Texas students are learning about Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist. Marshall’s report states that Chavez “is hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation.”

Of course a strong argument could be made for the inclusion of both Hutchinson and Chavez. It could even be advanced from the perspective of the Christian faith that Marshall and Barton hold dear. Hutchinson, for example, boldly stood before John Winthrop and defended liberty of conscience in matters of religion. Chavez’s labor activism was informed by his Catholicism.

But there is a bigger issue at stake here. It goes beyond the debate over who is “in” and who is “out.” It is the place of history in a school curriculum.

The study of history develops civic awareness and provides us with heroes from the past that we can look up to. This is the kind of history that Barton and Marshall want to promote. This kind of search for a useful past makes sense. Our natural inclination is to find something familiar in history—something that affirms our own convictions in the present.

Historians know, however, that not all of the past is familiar or useful. Not all of the past serves our present-day agendas.

Yet we must study it.

Students do not have to see themselves in the past in order to learn from it. The study of history can develop character, the kind of moral and intellectual development that happens when they encounter historical actors who are strange to them.

Real education takes place when students learn to respect the ideas of people with whom they (or their parents) might differ. Historical thinking forces them to lay aside their own biases and enter into the mind of a person from the past who may have views that do not conform to their own.

Such an engagement with the past lends itself to the cultivation of certain virtues—empathy, prudence, hospitality, self-denial—that might just make our students better people. This is the real value of the study of history in schools.

Perhaps the study of Cesar Chavez might help an 11th grade white student from a conservative Southern Baptist home learn something about the plight of her Mexican-American neighbors or the suffering of poor migrant workers.

Or perhaps her classmate, the child of secular atheists, might come to value the way that religion—and particularly Christianity– was important to the founding of the United States.
History, when taught correctly, has the power to transform us, regardless of the subject matter. It forces us to put aside our own selfishness and see ourselves as part of a human story that is larger than the contemporary moment in which we live.

As educator Sam Wineburg writes about history: “Of the subjects in the secular curriculum it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology—humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”

Let’s hope that the Texas Board of Education remembers this.

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. He is finishing a book entitled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Primer for Christians.

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