Pop Quiz: According to the Texas State Board of Education:
1. Jefferson Davis was:
a) the leader of the Confederacy;
b) as important an American leader as Abraham Lincoln;
c) lead singer of a rock band in the 1960’s.
2. Thomas Jefferson was:
a) the architect of American independence;
b) a dangerous commie influence undermining real American values;
c) Jefferson Davis’s cousin and drummer.
3. The separation of Church and State is:
a) constitutionally required by the First Amendment;
b) a liberal fiction that undermines this Christian nation;
c) the bar where the Jefferson Davis band plays in Vegas.
4. The United Nations is:
a) an organization of nations dedicated to peace and human rights;
b) a nefarious threat to U.S. sovereignty;
c) one of the teams where Freddy Adu played soccer.
5. Social Security and Medicare are:
a) essential programs to ensure economic security and healthcare for citizens in need;
c) stuff grandmom talks about when she’s at the Tea Party.
6. Slavery was:
a) a moral abomination;
b) the Atlantic triangular trade;
c) before my time.
7. Joe McCarthy was a:
a) disgraced Senator who misused his powers;
b) hero in our nation’s fight against the Communists;
c) shortstop for the ’64 Mets.
8. Government regulation and taxes:
a) are necessary to provide for public goods and safety in this nation;
b) are what every 3rd grader should see as threats to consumer prices and citizen self-determination;
c) wait…. will this be on the exam?
If you answered (a) to the above questions, then you are a hopeless liberal and better cancel that trip to Dallas. (I’m sure you’ve already sworn off Phoenix as well.)
If you answered (b), then you’re ready to be a social studies teacher in Houston, according to the Texas State Board of Education.
If you answered (c), you are ready for “Jaywalking” on Leno!
Unfortunately, for school children in Texas, there’s nothing funny about the (b) answers. The Texas State Board of Education has come up with a version of history that is almost as preposterous as the random dumbness displayed on Jaywalking.
Students reading social studies textbooks in Texas schools in the years to come will learn a whole lot more about Jefferson Davis and a whole lot less about Thomas Jefferson. They will learn about Daniel Boone but nothing about the contributions of Hispanic and African American leaders to the development of this nation. They will learn about the Moral Majority, National Rifle Association and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America without any counterbalancing perspectives. They will not learn much about the Civil Rights Movement.
We have come to this in the culture wars: politicians not only rant about their peculiar versions of reality, they write them into the lessons that will influence schoolchildren (and future voters) for years.
If ever there was a time for higher education to exert some moral voice, this is it! The Texas Problem is not just about K-12 education in the Lone Star State. The far more profound problem is the manipulation of knowledge and truth in ways that suit political leadership. The world has names for the deliberate distortion of intellectual capital to achieve political ends: the Soviet Union comes to mind, and other places where academic and intellectual freedom gave way to the rote lessons written by political leaders that generations of children had to memorize.
One of the great ironies of the culture wars in this nation is the way in which the phrase “political correctness” has been used as a cudgel against “liberal” views on the promotion of equal justice, human and civil rights, peace and environmental protection. In fact, the most notorious practitioners of political correctness have been on the right, with the Texas State Board of Education being the latest example of ideologues imposing their views on what children will learn in grade school and high school.
The other irony, of course, is that the Texas History Massacre has occurred in the name of upholding American Values! But the real American values are freedom of speech and thought, the bedrock of academic success in a free nation (civics teachers, take note: if you want to teach in Texas, you better get used to referring to the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic” and wash that word “democratic” as a form of government right out of your mouth! The new curriculum standards won’t let you say “democratic”…!)
Boards of Education everywhere have a rightful concern about whether every person in this nation — no matter how that person arrived on these shores — can read, can write, can do at least basic computation, and today, can operate a computer with some degree of confidence. The ability to read with comprehension, to express onself clearly, to do the math and log into sources of information and communication are essential to citizenship and economic security.
Education at all levels must be a true partnership between the academic community and public officials. The academic community must be the stewards of the knowledge that contributes content to the curriculum at all levels. In higher education, the research and scholarship of faculty continuously replenish the knowledge base, contributing new insights into historical facts, disclosing new truths about once-settled conventional wisdom. This knowledge base, along with pedagogical innovation and assessment methods, supports all learning including the K-12 curricula.
The job of public officials is to see to it that the school systems work well and are properly funded, that standards do exist for achievements at every grade level —indeed, it sure would be a relief if public officials were serious about making sure that every student who passes from one grade to another can actually read and write. Despite much huffing and puffing over the years on that topic, we still see students in college whose schools have failed them.
Being sure that students can actually read is a vital responsibility that public officials share with teachers. Dictating what students may or may not read is not the role of politicians. If ever there was an example of the skewering of reality when politicians write curricula, Texas now provides Exhibit A.
Note: Despite fears to the contrary, the Associated Press reports that technological changes have made it far less likely that Texas weird view of history will wind up in textbooks in, say, Idaho. Meanwhile, the California Senate has passed a bill to keep Texas ideas out of California classrooms.