"Guys, Your’re Rewriting History Now"

So claimed Pat Hardy at today’s meeting of the Texas State Board of Education when conservative Board member Don McElroy proposed removing from the standards the fact that propaganda had something to do with the U.S. entry into World War One.

I can’t tell whether to laugh or cry as I read Dan Quinn’s reports from the floor of today’s debate over what high school students in Texas should be learning in their required U.S. History course. Frankly, I am shocked at the way in which these kinds of curriculum decisions are made. As far as I can tell, it goes something like this: A member of the Board makes a proposal and then the entire Board votes up or down on it. So, for example, McElroy suggests that Margaret Sanger should not be in the standards. The Board discusses the proposal, votes on the proposal, and decides to remove Sanger from the curriculum.

It seems as if McElroy’s strategy is to wear the Board down with his endless politically-charged suggestions. And it seems to be working.

So far today, McElroy has proposed:

  • that students learn that the destruction of New Orleans was not caused by Katrina, but by the failure of the levy system. (As Quinn notes, McElroy wants to blame it on the government).
  • that the word “imperialism” should be replaced with “expansionism” when describing the U.S. acquisition of overseas territories in the late 1800s
  • that students should not learn about the Red Scare after World War I.
  • dropping the phrase “opportunities and obstacles for women and ethnic minorities” from a standard about the home front and patriotism during World War II. (He loses on this one–but I am shocked that he would even propose such an amendment!)
  • a standard discussing the vindication of Joseph McCarthy. (It is adopted)
  • that students learn how Ronald Reagan’s leadership restored national confidence to America. (Fair enough–but Quinn asks if they will also learn about the way Reagan “saddled the country” with debt).
  • a standard on the rise of conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s that would include students learning about Phyllis Schaffly, the Moral Majority, and National Rifle Association. (This one seems logical and fair).
  • a standard on the “Klondike gold rush.” (When McElroy is asked when this “gold rush” happened, he claims that he doesn’t know. It’s the late 1890s, Don).
  • a standard teaching students about American exceptionalism

It looks as if a lot of these changes are going to pass so here is my advice to teachers:

Take these standards with a grain of salt. Use them to teach your students historical thinking skills. The teaching of history is less about imparting content knowledge and more about training kids how to engage with a world that is different from their own. This can be done with any kind of historical content.

For example, when you have your class period devoted to the Spanish-American War, ask your students if what the U.S. did in the Philippines or what Rudyard Kipling wrote in “White Man’s Burden” is “imperialism” or “expansionism.” In the process you are meeting the state standard, but stripping it of all the political baggage that folks like McElroy want the classroom discussion of this topic to convey.

OK–I just refreshed my screen. It looks like McElroy wants William F. Buckley and Newt Gingrich added to the standards. Another Board member, Rick Agosto, suggests adding Ted Kennedy. The Republicans on the Board vote it down. Kennedy does not make the cut. This is all politics.

Now McElroy wants to replace a reference to hip hop music with “country and western music.” A debate is now ensuing over the meaning of hip hop. Stay tuned to see whether Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride or Jam Master Flash and Russell Simmons make it into the Texas social studies curriculum. Hilarious and sad at the same time!