Saturday, March 13, 2010

Conservatism & What Ails It 2: Textbook Boogaloo

Today comes word that the reactionaries on the Texas Board of Education voted, Friday, to give preliminary approval to a new set of "educational" standards for their state, standards created without any real concern for education, but with a great deal of concern for injecting heaping helpings of the noxious politics of the board majority into the educational process.

Some of the highlights cited by the Associated Press include teachers being "required to cover the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation's Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state. Curriculum standards also will describe the U.S. government as a 'constitutional republic,' rather than 'democratic'... " There are "amendments heralding 'American exceptionalism' and the U.S. free enterprise system, suggesting it thrives best absent excessive government intervention."

This has been an ongoing battle in Texas for some time, now. At various stages in the current process, the conservatives have pressed for requiring that students be able "to identify significant conservative advocacy organizations and individuals, such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority," for injecting global warming denial and creationist rubbish into the standards, for teaching that Sen. Joseph McCarthy had been vindicated. "Experts," such as Peter Marshall, a reactionary fruit-loop preacher from Massachusetts, and David Barton, a Republican party activist, were imported into the process as consultants. While the majority on the board found their politics pleasing, neither has ever had even a minute of formal training as an historian, nor ever demonstrated any genuine grasp of the subject. Barton does, however, seem to have made a comfortable living for himself as a faux historian, publishing right-wing fiction as "history," to the delight of the Religious Right [tm], and a combination of groans and hysterical laughter from everyone with any familiarity with the real thing.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the conservatives have accomplished, or tried to accomplish things like the complete elimination from the standards of any mention of Thurgood Marshall or César Chávez, and the downplaying of the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, in favor of portraying their accomplishments as the work of white Republicans. This week, as the board hashed out the standards, "numerous attempts to add the names or references to important Hispanics throughout history also were denied, inducing one amendment that would specify that Tejanos died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Another amendment deleted a requirement that sociology students 'explain how institutional racism is evident in American society'" (Associated Press). One amendment from the conservatives called for declaring that the civil rights movement led to "unrealistic expectations for equal outcomes."

Call the results Aryan History 101.

So it's going to suck to be a student in Texas, right? But why is it a concern for anyone in states not governed by inbred racists and reactionaries?

Glad you asked. Textbook publishers operate on a national basis, but Texas is one of the two biggest textbook markets in the U.S., and to make sales, those publishers have to tailor their product to meet the state standards. Those textbooks--the ones that suit the Texas reactionaries--will then be sold and used all over the U.S. for the next decade (the next time the state will have a curriculum review).

Get the picture?

Ye humble editor is big on education. An uninformed citizen is adrift on a night-shrouded sea of troubles, forever doomed to flail away in the darkness at a world he can never understand. I'm a history buff, myself. More than that, I'm a history fanatic ("buff" is far too soft a word). If someone characterized my view of history as not only a subject of learning, but the subject, it would only be a mild exaggeration. Merely saying American education in history is woefully inadequate is like merely saying Sarah Palin isn't very bright; the phrase "bold understatement" just doesn't begin to cover it. The long series of polls, surveys, studies documenting Americans' profound ignorance of history go back decades.

Back in 1995, James Loewen published "Lies My Teacher Told Me," which is still the definitive popular survey of the inadequacy of historical education in the U.S. Loewen examined 12 of the major U.S. history textbooks, and outlined their failings in painful detail. The books take what should be the most vibrant, debatable, and interesting subject, and drain every bit of the life out of it. They never use the past to illuminate the present, thus severing, for the student, all apparent relevance of the subject to the present and the future. Instead, "history" is presented through a narrative that reduces it to a series of problems that arose from nowhere and were solved long ago, and "learning" it means absorbing a seemingly endless series of names and dates. Errors abound. Historical events and figures are scrubbed in order to eliminate controversial elements, particularly any that, like racism, may be construed as reflecting badly on the U.S., which is the PC problem. It isn't, as conservatives would have it, a problem with liberal "political correctness"--it's a problem with conservative "patriotic correctness," and, as Loewen documents (without calling it that), it renders much of genuine U.S. history inexplicable.

Adopting Big Brother's dictum that he who controls the past controls the future, conservatives have long waged war on history. In the last few decades, an influential and astonishingly ignorant segment--or, to be more precise, particularly virulent strain--of American reactionaries who insist on viewing absolutely everything through the narrow lens of their twisted contemporary political goals have decided the wretchedly inadequate historical education American schools already dish out doesn't go nearly far enough, and they've wormed their way into positions of power wherever they could in order to make it even worse, with the goal of turning out more brain-dead robots like themselves. What's happening in Texas is just a more extreme example of what has always happened. It's also today's example of why conservatives just plain suck.


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