Monday, July 06, 2015

History Interruptus: Curricular Battles Continue

As racial tension continues to rise and a certain political insularity appears to be a mounting anti-democratic meme of our age, most reasonable people would argue that our schools need to educate children on the battles of the past and present to try to ameliorate those battles in the future. Those reasonable people would be wrong, of course, at least where the state of Texas is concerned. The state, arguably stuck in an ideological cave over a century in arrears, has taken their atavism to heretofore unrealized levels in recent years, ignoring the increased gun violence in America by passing open carry laws, eshewing that pesky separation of church and state whenever possible, ignoring the consensus on marriage equality and, not surprisingly, continuing to openly support racial antagonism against blacks and Latino/as.

The latest parry in the ongoing war against the war against racism comes in the form of public school curriculum, a less reported but incredibly important battleground in the cultural wars over the past 30 years. It started back in the 80s when conservatives lined the “adoption boards” that choose the list of acceptable books and textbooks for each grade at the state level. By taking over those boards in states including Texas, Florida and, to a lesser extent, California, they were able to essentially control the entire industry. Textbook makers soon realized the importance of appeasing the interests of these adoption boards and began to create books that both avoided topics that were too controversial and often supported a more conservative worldview. This is most obvious in the case of evolution versus intelligent design (aka “creationism), but exists across the curricular spectrum from the novels students read to the science they are taught to the examples used in math classes and, maybe most importantly, to the history the youth of America learn.

It is here where the conservative bias in curriculum has again shown its face with recent changes to Texas social studies books essentially erasing the long history of racism in America. The books barely touch on racial segregation, do not mention the KKK or even the Jim Crow Laws. When looking at the Civil War, they even find a way to diminish the importance of the abolishment of slavery by claiming it was caused by “sectionalism, state’s rights and [only third] slavery.” A board member who helped adopt the standards in 2010 went as far as to claim slavery was a “side issue to the Civil War,” and that, “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”

As just one example of this bias, students in Texas are now required to read the speech Jefferson Davis gave when he was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America, an address that does not mention slavery. But students are not required to read a famous speech by Alexander Stephens, Davis’s vice president, in which he explained that the South’s desire to preserve slavery was the cornerstone of its new government and “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

Given the continued violence by police against unarmed black men, the killing of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist and the general racial antagonisms that continue to animate our social, political and economic lives, it seems like reckless abandonment to have our children ignore these issues inside our schools. That is, unless we want to preserve the only real appeal the Republican party has beyond the economic elites of our country – using racism, backwards notions of “religious freedom,” and jingoistic anti-immigrant rhetoric to stir up white panic (particularly of the male variety). Of course, attempts to control knowledge are wrought with challenges at present, as much of the Internet remains above the fold of ideological control. Let’s hope it stays that way!

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