The Nation's Pulse

Textbook Texas

It's official: The State Board of Education sticks to its guns.

By 5.24.10

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If we Texans don't know by now what a lot of louts and clods we are, we'll surely know it once the national intelligentsia get through raking us over the coals for our state education board's vote last week to primitivize our schools and debase young minds. That's assuming our leaders of thought ever do get through with that holy mission.

They may not. The State Board of Education's offense is great -- namely, restoring to notice in Texas textbooks, to a certain eminence even, quaint ideas about federalism and the religious viewpoint of the American founders.

A liberal Democratic board member who voted against the standard is "ashamed of what we have done to the students and teachers of this state." That should give you some idea of the infamy we have incurred.

It wouldn't, in my lowbrow estimation, be reasonable to say everything the board did in framing the way Texas wants social studies textbooks written was beyond admonition or finger-waggling. Yet the board -- whose decisions will influence for 10 years the way textbooks are written for other states as well as Texas -- expertly demonstrated a well-known scientific principle: For every action, there is an opposite or equal reaction.

If the education board's high-hatted critics deplore, say, sandwiching into the curriculum the topic of how conservatives surged to power in the '80s, they might have had a care in earlier years not to present the Roosevelt-Truman years as Nirvana.

Religion, as many will sense, is at the heart of the dispute over what America means. What did the Founders intend with the postulation of the First Amendment -- a secular state or one consecrated to God and the Bible? The U.S. Supreme Court threw out of kilter, beginning in the 1960s, our more-or-less common understanding that Religion was a Good Thing, and worthy, in some murky sense, of advancement and promotion on government's part.

Post '60s liberal ideology, by contrast, holds that state and church were marked at the start for apartness. The Texas board of education, so far from accepting the postmodern view of things, has ordered a quest for balance. Members want it noted that the words "separation of church and state" appear nowhere in the Constitution. As indeed they don't: deriving instead from a Jeffersonian metaphor. The need to make plain the difference between what Jefferson wrote in a private letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptists and the actual language of the First Amendment aches for exposition. (Whether Texans, or anyone else, should look to the public schools for intelligent exposition of that sophisticated point is a different proposition.)

The education board, dominated at present by conservatives, made no bones of its belief that conservative ideas logically belong in educational discourse: particularly discourse financed by the taxpayers.

The Austin ruckus over textbooks has its national model in the Tea Party insurgencies, the anti-incumbent fever at the polls, the swelling anger at dictation and intimidation by the "pros," the "experts," who'll happily tell us all what to think we'll just shut up and listen.

The repudiation of the Republican Party, in two consecutive national elections, 2006 and 2008, didn't signal, it seems, ordinary Americans' desire for the drawing of all power into one national location, Washington, D.C. Ordinary Americans pay taxes without crying out, gee, tax us some more, won'tcha? Ordinary Americans embrace the impressive achievements of the civil rights revolution without submitting to dictation from the civil rights establishment over who's "racist" and who isn't. (Another thing ordinary Americans have taken up, with pardonable pride, is the pastime of giving political incumbents a raspberry and the toe of their boot.)

What the left affirms, by contrast, is nothing less than its entitlement to tell the American story as an inspirational tale of liberation from ancient suppositions of Western (read: "white male") superiority reflected in such movements and institutions as Christianity, capitalism, slavery, aristocracy, and imperialism, all of which (so the usual narrative goes) we applied ourselves to putting in their rightful place, starting the in the 1960s.

What else did the Texas yahoos do to offend liberal sensibilities besides try to balance treatment of relationships between government and religion? Well, they provided for more objective treatment of the national "witch hunt" for communists in the 1950s, with a view to showing, apropos documents disclosed after the Soviet Union's fall, that, yes, there were communists embedded in our government. A myth more tenacious even than "separation" of church and state is the quest of villainous, self-seeking folk like Joe McCarthy and Dick Nixon to find reds under every bed. That a lot of beds concealed a lot of reds is a point worth making before young minds conclude the kind of people who would go after poor Alger Hiss deserve no one's sympathy.

The board even decided to give Jefferson Davis his day in court by offering his inaugural address as Confederate president alongside Abraham Lincoln's arguments for maintenance of the union. What's that? -- show the existence of arguments that contrast and conflict with the received gospel of Lincoln? I think I can predict the board's action here will produce pronounced reaction from an intelligentsia committed to the proposition -- absent from discourse before the civil rights revolution -- that the Confederacy was the embodiment of mass moral degeneracy.

The fate of the nation hardly rides on the resolution of essentially non-resolvable questions, such as did the South fight for slavery or local rights? Nearer to the heart of the matter is how much free speech and intellectual inquiry may the intelligentsia suppress without undermining the integrity of that same First Amendment for which they profess such large regard. The Texas education board's opinion: Liberal orthodoxy ain't orthodoxy; ain't deserving either of the free pass for which liberals clamor.

So large (4.8 million students) is the Texas textbook market that publishers tend to sell Texas-approved texts in other states. This elevates the matter of our state education board, and its choices, to a prominence it would otherwise lack. What we decide down here might -- gasp! -- end up corrupting minds and hearts in Nebraska. And not just in the short term. Texas' newly adopted textbooks standards are meant to last, and likely will, for 10 whole years.

One doesn't look to see, really, the schoolmasters and 'marms of Massachusetts passing on without demurral the views of Texas yahoos concerning the high points of the Reagan presidency. It suits Texans enough for now that their board never flinched in the face of yowls and screeches from whatever quarter, including home. No doubt it's another legacy from our cowboy culture: you hear the thunder of oncoming hooves; you load, you squint, you call for a vote. 

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.