The miseducation of Texas

By Michelle Chen Jul 17, 2009

President Obama stressed the importance of embracing history when he spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants this week at the NAACP convention. But in Texas, historical consciousness is imperiled in a debate over what to teach the state’s public school students. Randy Shaw reports in Beyond Chron:

The Texas State Board of Education is moving toward removing Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall from the social studies curriculum taught to its 4.7 million public school students. According to one of the six “expert reviewers” revising the 1997 curriculum, Chavez “lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of so many others; and his open affiliation with Saul Alinsky’s movements certainly makes dubious that he is praiseworthy.” Another reviewer concluded that Marshall, a Supreme Court justice who as an attorney argued the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, is “not an appropriate example as a historical figure of influence.”

It does seem odd that as the country reemerges from eight years of anti-intellectual government and embarks on unprecedented soul-searching about civil rights—updating a social studies curriculum would involve denigrating social justice pioneers. Or maybe it’s not so strange that these experts would look at a student population comprised mostly of youth of color—in which de-facto segregation remains remains stubbornly severe—and fail to see the value in teaching about the legacy of Brown v. Board. And you can guess why, given the state’s heavy dependence on migrant agricultural labor, when it comes to educating the children of exploited Latino workers, the experts would downplay the contributions of a groundbreaking farm worker justice movement. So what kind of lessons would the expert reviewers prioritize over the narratives of Marshall and Chavez? According to the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, the panelists include two Christian fundamentalists who profess that income taxes are against the Bible, that the judiciary should not operate as an independent branch of government, and that Islam poses an existential threat to American society. Shaw sees the classroom as an apt battleground for the far right:

The last thing these conservatives want is for millions of young Latinos to learn how Cesar Chavez preached the virtues of democratic participation — and even more dangerous is the fact that Chavez was a deeply religious man whose faith motivated him to organize workers and fight injustice…. Although increased Latino voting will soon reduce the clout of the Texas right wing, the curriculum standards now being updated will stay in place for a decade. So unless activists and editorial boards get busy, public school students in Texas will be taught a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist perspective on United States history.

Much has been said about the nation’s progress toward equality under the new administration. But somehow, reactionaries keep finding new ways to hold back young minds as they pen the next chapter of their history. Image: Students at César Chávez Elementary School (Raymond R. Beltrán / La Prensa San Diego)