The Texas Social Studies Standards Debacle

The Texas State Board of Education worked late into the evening yesterday hammering out the state’s new social studies curriculum standards. Dan Quinn from the Texas Freedom Network continues to do yeoman’s work for all of us by live-blogging the entire discussion and debate.

What is going on in Austin this week is an utter embarrassment to social studies educators everywhere. This now goes beyond any criticism of David Barton and Peter Marshall as expert reviewers. Quinn’s reporting makes it clear that the members of the Texas State Board have absolutely no clue about how history should be taught in our schools. This is not only a sad, sad example of the way in which the study of the past is being politicized, but it also reveals that the Texas Board knows very little about how history education works.

I don’t have the time or the inclination at this point to reiterate arguments that I have made over and over again on this blog about the teaching of history. I once again point you to the op-ed I wrote last summer for the Houston Chronicle or you can read any of my previous posts about the Texas Standard debates or the series I did last year on Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

But it is at least worth mentioning a few things from yesterday’s meeting in order to give some meat to the strong words I used above.

First, it seems that the Texas State Board of Education’s idea of designing a social studies curriculum is to create a list of historical figures who students must learn about. If I was a teacher in Texas I would be pulling my hair out! History education is not as much about covering content as it is about teaching students how to interpret the past. Why isn’t the board talking about the importance of teaching students how to read primary sources with a careful and critical eye? Why aren’t they discussing the best way for students to see change over time? Why aren’t they talking about the way history helps students develop empathy and compassion for others?

Moreover, the Board seems to have no respect for teachers. It portrays teachers as robots who stand before the classroom and spew out the names of the people and places that they have been programmed to spew out by the Texas States Board of Education.

So instead of allowing the teacher some flexibility in the way they craft their curriculum, the Board works late into the night for no other purpose than to create a list of names of those figures they want included in the curriculum.

Here are some highlights:

  • A board member wants kindergartners (that’s right, kindergartners!) to learn how Christopher Columbus and John Smith helped to shape Texas and America. Christopher Columbus and Texas? I could see the standard know: “Christopher Columbus founds the Lone Star State.” Apparently the existing standard, which mentions George Washington and Stephen F. Austin, is not good enough.
  • Apparently one of the strongest supporters of providential history on the Board did not show up until hours into the proceedings. Hmmm…
  • One Board member wants to drop “justice” and “equality” from the standard on how to be a good citizen. Why would anyone want to do this?
  • In a surprising turn of events, one of the conservative members of the Board wants W.E.B. DuBois included in the standards. I am not sure that he knows DuBois was a member of the Communist Party. (He joined at the age of 93!).
  • A Board member wants to remove a standard asking students to consider the economic motivations behind the settling of Texas. Apparently such a standard undermines the “religious motivations” behind the founding of the state. At least this standard about “motivations” implies some level of interpretation on the part of the student, though I am not sure I would argue that the religious motivations for the founding of Texas outweigh the economic ones.
  • A Board member wants to add “religious revivals” to a list of “causes and effects prior to and during the American Revolution.” The motion failed, but it should be noted that many serious historians–Harry Stout and Patricia Bonomi to name two–have put forth a version of this argument.
  • A Board member wants to limit the holidays that students learn about in a World Cultures class to mostly Christian and Jewish holidays. As Quinn writes: “One more time: this is a WORLD CULTURES class.”
  • A Board member tries to convince the rest of the board that one of the standards should include some kind of statement about how government regulation and taxation are bad for the economy. Wow!

I like the idea of “Toby,” one of the commentators on a previous post on this topic. What if Texas students studied this controversy in their social studies classes? What if they had a say in what they were going to learn? What if they had the chance to have input into their own curriculum? I think learning about this debate would enlighten them to the way that history is constructed and politicized. In the process, under the guidance of a skilled teacher, they might learn some real historical thinking skills.

And the circus continues today… Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “The Texas Social Studies Standards Debacle

  1. John: I am completely with you on this. I love Breen. I just got done teaching his stuff on consumerism last semester and think I am going to try his book on consumerism and the Revolution in my American Revolution class next fall. (I am also toying with assigning Brendan McConville's book in the Revolution class, but he and Breen together might be a bit too much Anglicization, especially if I end the course with Murrin's “Roof Without Walls.”

    As for Butler: I am with him on the links between the G.A. and the Revolution. I am not with him, however, on the Great Awakening as “interpretive fiction.” Tim Hall, Tommy Kidd, Lambert, and some of my own work on Eleazar Wheelock has convinced me that this was indeed a “Great and General Awakening.”

    Thanks for the post

    I also just got done teaching his “Interpretive Fiction” JAH article. It is now almost 30 years old, but is still goes well alongside Stout's “The Divine Dramatist*. It is fun teasing out the nuances of Butler's approach with largely bright evangelical students.

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  2. The California state standards ask students to “describe the relationship between the moral and political ideas of the Great Awakening and the development of revolutionary fervor.” I have lectured on this several times to various groups of teachers involved in our K-16 History Project.(When I lecture on this I discuss the Great Awakening and consumer revolution as elements of inter-colonial convergence, and the rise of inter-colonial political resistance in the 1760s. I am a Breenite.)

    I have found the teachers appreciate some of the subtext behind this standard, namely that it reflects older historical interpretations that stressed the democratic aspects of Protestantism and the anti-democratic aspects of Catholicism. (This has a particularly interesting valance out here where nativism shades into anti-Catholicism. Just check the comments on the Napa Valley Register web page on November 1st.) I don't try to be a “debunker,” or to imply that those who wrote the Cali Standards had improper motives, but merely suggest that they relied on older scholarship that had implicit biases. (And also for the record: I always choose Butler when it comes to interpreting the Great Awakening, modified by Lambert's Great Awakening as textual event thesis.)

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