Five years ago, after months of biased reporting, millions of Americans learned — incorrectly — that Christian extremists on the Texas state school board had engineered a top-to-bottom overhaul of history standards that was destined to corrupt textbooks nationwide. “Texas Textbook Massacre: Ultraconservatives Approve Radical Changes to State Education Curriculum,” said a Huffington Post headline at the time.
This line of thought now seems cast in progressive stone, intensified by conflict over the Confederate flag, now perceived by many to be an emblem of hate. Thanks to a front-page article in the Washington Post on July 5, ”A Classroom Battle over Interpreting the Civil War,” and a wave of news reports since, including Diane Rehm’s on NPR, Americans are hearing that textbook publishers have surrendered to reactionary forces, soft-pedaling slavery as a cause of the Civil War and subsequent racism in the South.
According to the narrative, when school begins in the fall, U.S. history textbooks based on 2010 social studies standards are ready for delivery to about 5 million Texas students. These textbooks not only distort the reasons for the Civil War. By portraying slavery merely as one of several factors pushing Southern states to secede, and by focusing on states’ rights, dishonest Texas textbooks cater to residual racialism. Making matters worse, the Texas standards do not explicitly require textbooks to include material on Jim Crow laws that perpetuated segregation or on the Ku Klux Klan.
Texas officials rightly dispute these charges. Both the Texas Education Agency and major publishers say textbooks the board approved last fall did include such subjects in their books. The facts are: Texas history standards pretty much conform to what is already in the nation’s textbooks. History books sold and used in Texas and the South are for the most part identical to those used in every other state. Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — the three publishers that have a lock on K-12 history textbooks — produce nearly identical volumes. Textbooks include lots of subject matter not stated in state standards.
Consider what the Texas standards actually say:
The student is expected to: (A) analyze the impact of tariff policies on sections of the United States before the Civil War; (B) compare the effects of political, economic, and social factors on slaves and free blacks; (C) analyze the impact of slavery on different sections of the United States; and (D) identify the provisions and compare the effects of congressional conflicts and compromises prior to the Civil War, including the roles of John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.
The student is expected to: (A) explain reasons for the involvement of Texas in the Civil War such as states’ rights, slavery, sectionalism, and tariffs; (B) explain the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery, and significant events of the Civil War, including the firing on Fort Sumter; the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg; the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation; Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House; and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and (C) analyze Abraham Lincoln’s ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address and contrast them with the ideas contained in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address.
Nothing far out here. But no matter. It’s the narrative that counts.
The spearhead has been the powerful 60,000-member Texas Freedom Network. Created by Cecile Richards, the daughter of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, and now Planned Parenthood’s president in New York City, “to counter the Christian Right,” it has long had the Washington Post education staff in its pocket, trumpeting its bogus claims.
A 2011 Fordham Foundation review of the state history standards designed to point out variations in state standards — and build a case for Common Core — has been a golden gift to the Network. The report supposedly verifies “conservative” dismay with the state. In a long list of shortfalls and omissions in the Texas standards, it states, unfittingly:
Slavery, too, is largely missing. Sectionalism and states’ rights are listed before slavery as causes of the Civil War, while the issue of slavery in the territories — the actual trigger for the sectional crisis — is never mentioned at all. During and after Reconstruction, there is no mention of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, or sharecropping; the term “Jim Crow” never appears.
No serious historian or textbook contests that slavery was the premier agent of secession. It was “an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation,” said New York senator William Seward in 1858. But the Civil War was a conflict over the nature of federal power and union. While slavery led to division and disunion, and in spite of the decisive force of abolitionism, the Civil War was not a war fought to free slaves.
Keep in mind — Fox News, are you listening? — the Texas State Board of Education is often indefensible. Using heavy-handed tactics, partisan board members have in the past alienated well-regarded centrist historians. The Christian majority drew national contempt in 2009 for its iron opposition to evolution and an embarrassing resolution the following year on Islam in the curriculum. Texas board members across the political spectrum are old hands at grandstanding the media.
The Texas religious right does not exert unique sway over history textbook publishers. Texas is an important educational publishing market but not make-or-break nationally and hasn’t been for decades. This is the case more than ever with changing instructional materials and in classroom teaching styles de-emphasizing textbooks.
Scrubbed and focus-tested to be “teacher-friendly” and “inclusive,” today’s cartoonish, text-light, diversity-themed social studies readers are imbedded in multimedia “programs.” Textbooks with a voice, real point of view, or author are gone. Any textbook that leaned toward Confederate apologetics or sidestepped slavery disappeared many decades ago.
Nevertheless, unyielding partisan activists and case-closed journalists ask the public to gasp again at nefarious efforts to twist history textbooks into racist, Christian-tainted propaganda. Fighting what they profess to be rampant fanaticism, bigotry, and xenophobia, they suppress any notice of their own prejudices and idées fixes. Whether the time-tested attack formula will work once again remains an open question.