Texas School Board and the Abusable Past

As they so often do, Tom Tomorrow's cartoon hits the nail on the head!

The great French historian Marc Bloch once defined history as the “event, plus the various interpretations of that event.” Interpretation is important and contemporary scholars use the phrase “the usable past” to describe the ways in which long ago events inform the present. As a college history professor, it’s sheer joy when a young person comes to my office to confess that they thought they hated history, but against all odds they seem to love it. That act of contrition is usually sparked by their own discovery of the usable past. In the course of animated discussion I invariably field this query: “Why didn’t I learn any of this in high school?” I patiently explain that many people don’t acquire the ability to base their thinking upon abstract principles until they’re in their teens, so an eighth-grade teacher would have done them no service to exact from them deep levels of moral reasoning. Or we talk about how standardized testing is often more content-heavy rather than thinking-based.

Leave it a bunch of bloviating Texans to ruin a good thing. The Texas Board of Education has just revised its history curriculum for public schools and, based on its actions, we now must reference an “abusable” past, one in which Bloch’s “events” are ignored altogether. Go straight to “interpretation” (singular, not plural). Do not pass go, lean to the left, or deviate from the service of a right-wing political agenda. In the future I’ll have to tell students they didn’t learn a whole lot of good history because their textbooks are filled with lies perpetrated by a handful of zealots and bigots. Among the utter garbage masquerading as “balance” in Texas are these gems: the “slave trade” is now called the “Atlantic triangular trade,” “imperialism” has resurfaced as “expansionism,” and references to capitalism will be cleansed of greed associations by using the phrase “free enterprise system” instead. Oh yes, not all slaves resented bondage, the speeches of Jefferson Davis deserve equal weight with those of Abraham Lincoln, the violence associated with the civil rights movement will get more play, country music (but not rock or hip hop) will be deemed a national cultural legacy, Ronald Reagan will be dubbed a “great American,” condemnations of Senator Joseph McCarthy will be tempered with revelations of domestic spying (as if to say Tail Gunner Joe was right all along). A particularly obscene example of Good ‘ole Boy history was the defeat of a proposal to add more Hispanic history to Texas textbooks. Instead, the board voted to reduce the coverage given to César Chavéz and Thurgood Marshall so that room could be made to discuss Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, the NRA, and the Heritage Foundation. Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute! In a state that’s one-third Hispanic and 12% black you can’t find space for Chavéz or the first black Supreme Court justice, but you can find it for Phyllis Schlafly? Good God in Heaven!

An appropriate phrase that last one, because this is what it’s really all about in Texas. Once again we see the Christian Right turning to politics to compel people to believe in that which their proselytism has failed to convince the masses to profess. Let me zero in on just one of the Big Lies in the new curriculum. Texas kids will now learn that the Founding Fathers set up the new nation in accordance with Judeo-Christian principles and never intended a wall to be built between church and state. The Board even cooked the books by removing most Thomas Jefferson references because, well, he didn’t even pretend to be a Christian. What else can you do with a man who coined the phrase “separation of church and state” and remarked that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter?" Nor does the Board mention that Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were Deists, that a Bible had to be fetched for Washington’s swearing-in ceremony because he didn’t have one, or that Washington did not say “so help me God” at the end of that ceremony. (That folktale didn’t come into existence until 1850.) Let’s just look at a few (of many) quotes from our “Christian” founders:

--“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any other church…. My mind is my own church.”—Thomas Paine
--“All national institution of churches…appear to me to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrifying and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit.”—Thomas Paine
--An alliance between “Government and Religion [has]…a corrupting influence upon both parties.”—James Madison
--“Religion flourishes in greatest purity without the act of government.”—James Madison
--“…strongly guarded…is the separation between Religion and Government…”—Alexander Hamilton
-- “The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”—John Adams
--“Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause. Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated.”—George Washington

To the above let us add a few other facts: Roger Williams called for a “wall of separation” between religion and politics in 1647, and by the time of the American Revolution, this was prevailing wisdom. The Declaration of Independence has four references to God—“Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge,” and “Divine Providence”—standard Deist language. Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution has a single reference to Jesus. The original state constitutions of Delaware, Georgia, New York, South Carolina, and Tennessee expressly forbade ministers from holding political office.

I’m all for discussing the role of religion in America, but that includes a thorough look at its ideological uses as well. Or are we to believe that the Salem witch trials broke up a Satanist cult, that Gilded Age “muscular Christianity” was just a physical education movement, or that adding “In God We Trust” to U.S. currency had nothing to do with the Cold war and was simply sound fiscal policy rooted in the promoting the “free enterprise system?” And I’d like to discuss—that’s “discuss,” not pontificate—a few other things as well. Among them: What were the commodities exchanged in the Atlantic triangle trade? What was the global impact of U.S. expansionism? Should Jefferson Davis have been hanged as a traitor? Was Senator McCarthy a demagogue? Do the accomplishments of Ronald Reagan the president warrant iconic status? How do we define "greatness?" Is the Moral Majority an oxymoron? What percentage of Texans is clinically insane?

Okay, cheap shot on the last line. I wish this travesty was only a case of Lone Star Loonies. Here’s the worst of the bad news. The Texas textbook market is HUGE—so large, in fact, that most publishers are likely to cave in rather than insist that their books be accurate. In other words, the Texas standards will become the national narrative that gets thrown into the lockers of most American kids.

The last bit is the good news in this piece. When I’m asked “Why didn’t I learn this in high school?” I often smile and say, “You know, it’s possible you were too busy being a teenager and weren’t paying attention!” If my undergrads are an example, the content of their texts doesn’t matter because they won’t read the damn things anyhow. For once, education is better served by blissful (as opposed to willful) ignorance.

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