As Texas messes with history, worry that it'll multiply

Monday, April 5, 2010

A lot of attention has been focused on Texas in recent weeks, because state officials decided to rewrite social studies curriculum and force kids to learn a distorted view of the country's past.

Folks in other states are worried that the changes will wind up appearing in schools outside Texas. The state, with almost 5 million students in kindergarten through high school, dictates what is in the textbooks it purchases from publishers, and other states often buy the same materials.

Texas textbooks will, for example, play down the role of Thomas Jefferson among the Founding Fathers (which actually can't be overstated) and question the separation of church and state as a fundamental principle in the country's creation.

There will be a new emphasis on conservative figures, including columnist Phyllis Schlafly. And students will study Abraham Lincoln's and Jefferson Davis's inaugural addresses as if they had equal historical weight.

The changes are expected to be finalized next month.

I asked the award-winning historian James McPherson what he thought about the controversy.

Here's what he said:

"One can only regret the conservative pressure groups and members of the Texas education board that have forced certain changes in high school history textbooks used in the state.

"Such politicization is nothing new -- I once wrote an article about successful efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, United Confederate veterans and other groups to get the Confederate viewpoint into American history textbooks from the 1890s to the 1920s.

"And other interest groups have done the same on many different occasions.

"The Texas issue is of greater concern because the board prescribes the acceptable texts for every public school in the state, which not only muzzles school districts and teachers who might want to choose their own books, but also puts pressure on national textbook publishers because Texas is such a large market.

"On the whole, I think most U.S. history textbooks today are pretty good with respect to accuracy and integrity of interpretation. The publishers recruit respected professional historians to write and/or vet the material, and strive to meet professional standards for accuracy. I'm afraid, however, that many publishers dumb down the writing style in order to reach the rather low common denominator of students' reading skills."

Frankly, I don't think "pretty good" is good enough.

The Texas dustup is a subplot in a larger drama. Only the largest publishers can afford to compete for contracts, and that often results in textbooks that are terribly written and sometimes inaccurate.

In fact, the Indiana Board of Education warned local school districts not to use many of the social studies texts actually adopted by the state because, it effectively said, they are lousy.

"Many of the available social studies textbooks do not provide content that is interesting, engaging and supportive of effective and interested student learning," said an open letter the board issued a year ago to educators.

And that was BEFORE Texas decided to rewrite history.

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