Lt. Col. William B. Travis was nine days from his death at the Alamo, alongside about 200 others, when he wrote a desperate appeal for help in the struggle of Texas independence from Mexico.
Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna had laid siege to the mission, he wrote, and Travis had already declined to lay down his arms. “I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never surrender or retreat.”
There was no retreat. The defenders were killed within two hours on Mar. 6, 1836, and the few survivors were executed. Initially forgotten, the battle site later became a shrine of Texan pride, with the defenders often likened to Greek warriors tragically bested at Thermopylae.
But were the defenders heroes?
That is something the Texas Board of Education will decide in the coming months after a working group recommended it strike requirements to teach “heroic” acts of the defenders, touching off a fierce debate about history and education that reached the governor's office.
Until now, Texas state curriculum has urged the idea of heroics taught to seventh graders in a required history course, along with a careful study of Travis's letter written in the year Texas gained independence from Mexico.
But working groups of educators and historians, tasked with streamlining social-studies standards, have advised the Texas Board of Education to remove a focus on “heroic” acts at the Alamo, calling the term “value-loaded,” according to a draft of their recommendations. Those changes should free up about 90 minutes of class time, the working group said.
Current curriculum requires study of “all the heroic defenders.” That language makes the list of figures — which include legendary frontiersmen Davy Crockett and James Bowie — too long to cover, the working groups said. The groups also suggested much less focus on Travis's letter.
The nonbinding recommendation, made as far back as April, went little noticed until Texas Monthly reported about the proposal Thursday, prompting a public rebuke to the working groups from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
"Stop political correctness in our schools. Of course Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’! I fully expect the State Board of Education to agree,” Abbott wrote Thursday on Twitter. He asked his followers to complain to their board representatives.
The recommendation has also been opposed by Texas Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, a Republican appointee of Abbott. “If there is ever a time you could say a set of folks were heroic, then this is the very definition of that,” she told The Washington Post on Saturday.
Feedback has been solicited from teachers, but there was little public attention to the idea until the Texas Monthly story on Thursday. The board has been deluged with hundreds of calls and emails since, Bahorich said.
Omitting the term “heroic” may help teachers revitalize the complexities of not only the battle, but Texas history itself, said Walter L. Buenger, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, who called the popular depiction of the Alamo of patriots in coonskin caps “exceptionally simplistic."
For instance, the Alamo's last stand was in defiance of Sam Houston, commander of Texas forces, who wanted to consolidate the precious few men, Buenger said. “In some minds, [the defenders] were not heroic but vainglorious, foolish, and counterproductive,” he told The Post on Saturday.
What passes as history is often a social memory, and tweaking the formula can bring in more information and context, he said. The battle was only revered decades after the building itself was used by the Army as a storage depot a decade after the battle. By the early 20th century, as Hispanic immigration rose, the Alamo was cast as a good and evil struggle with whites on one side and Mexicans on the other, Buenger said.
But people of Mexican descent also fought for the Texan cause at the Alamo, Buenger said, a fact has been cast aside since the racist depiction of Mexicans in the 1915 movie “Martyrs of the Alamo.” It was produced by D.W. Griffith, whose other 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
The Alamo film helped extend and even create some of the mythology of the battle. “Memories of the Alamo created in 1910 say something about 1910 and relatively little about 1836,” Buenger said. The 1960 film “The Alamo,” featuring John Wayne as Crockett, also focused more on simplistic narratives of heroism as a thinly veiled parable of the Cold War.
Bahorich and the other 14 board members followed developments on the recommendations, but now that they're finalized, it will be put to a preliminary vote on Wednesday following a public hearing, she said, with an opportunity to add amendments. The final vote is Friday, with a second reading in November that would set the curriculum.
She is not concerned that retaining “heroic” in the curriculum guide will preclude complexities. “Teachers want kids to be critical thinkers,” she said.
But intense focus on the Alamo in curriculum has perplexed Buenger and others. How settlers killed and conquered Native Americans and expanded slavery in the territory even as Mexico opposed it needs some study, historians have said.
Buenger agrees there is too much curriculum focus on certain aspects of the Alamo but says there is also too much about the fight for independence itself. Many classes pay less attention to events after the Civil War, he said.
“Texas has a lot of history after that, and it’s worth studying,” he said.