Rewriting History in Texas

By Michelle Chen Mar 14, 2010

Rewriting history sounds like a daunting task, but an elite group of educational “experts” in Texas makes it look easy. In the Lone Star State, all you need to dictate education policy is an abiding faith in dead white men, an unshakeable belief in “free enterprise," and a coveted spot on a conservative-packed panel. As we reported last summer, Texas educators and politicians have been embroiled in a fierce battle over standards for the state’s history, government and economics textbooks, which come up for renewal every ten years. On Thursday, the right-wing-dominated 15-member Board of Education voted on a set of new guidelines for the next decade that seem to actually go back in history, harkening back to somewhere between, say, the Alamo and the War of Northern Aggression. The 10-5 vote cemented an ideological revisionist campaign that activists decry as an assault on civil rights and historical reality. The guidelines, to be finalized and adopted in May following a public comment period, will enlighten students as to the following:


  1. America was founded by great men committed to molding the Republic according to their vision of biblical providence. Don’t believe any of that hippy-dippy church-state separation stuff. (And don’t assume that the First Amendment is any more important than the right to bear arms).
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  3. Capitalism is a sacrosanct principle of society, but shall now be referred to as “free enterprise” (the New York Times quotes board member Terri Leo: “Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation… You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”). And American “imperialism” will heretofore be described as “expansionism.”
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  5. Discussions of sex should not focus on gender identity, because that could lead to conversations about transgender people and other things conservative board members find icky.
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  7. When studying civil rights history, children should learn about the “unintended consequences” of major progressive social policies like the Great Society and Affirmative Action.
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  9. Pioneering activists like Dolores Huerta of United Farm Workers and Archbishop Oscar Romero don’t deserve to be studied as influential political leaders.
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  11. Hip hop, due to its degraded content, should not be considered a genre of music in high school history curricula.

Last summer, the board considered proposals to shove social justice activists into history’s dustbin. Children don’t need to learn about figures like Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, the logic went, because their contributions to American society didn’t merit a place in a history curriculum. Some of the more egregious ideas, particularly efforts to erase mentions of race, gender and inequality, were passed over in the final haggling. This week’s debates nonetheless devolved into an ugly war of words, disputing everything from terminology used to describe America’s system of government (they prefer "constitutional republic" to "democracy"), to whether to acknowledge the Federal Reserve in a discussion of economic history. The “updated” standards, which bear the stamp of Christian-right ideologues (background checks via Texas Freedom Network) could have a ripple effect across the country, since the state’s huge student population makes it a major textbook market. But more importantly, the guidelines offer a glimpse into the minds of enormously influential people who operate outside the education bureaucracy and the legislature, whose dictates are underwritten by a hardline culture war. The collateral damage falls on Texas school children, who are mostly children of color, locked in a intensely segregated school system with huge racial disparities in academic achievement. Their minds will be sculpted by a right-wing cabal who reside in a myopic world that couldn’t be further from these children’s communities. The new textbook standards reveal that the authors know all too well that a young mind is a terrible thing to waste—especially when it can be pressed into the service of reactionary politics. Image: "The Settlement of Austin’s Colony, or The Log Cabin" (Texas State Library and Archives Commission).