Monday, May 24, 2010

Texas Curriculum Wars

As a "social studies" teacher (I abhor that phrase--I teach HISTORY), I suppose it would be a good idea for me to weigh in on the business in Texas involving the US History curriculum. For those who haven't been following the story, the Texas state school board is about two-to-one Republican over Democrat, and they have voted to change the standards that set curriculum for public schools. This is especially important because the sheer size of Texas' student body means that major textbook publishers tend to tailor their basic texts to Texas standards, so their decisions can bleed over into other states' curricula. The big"outrage" is that the board is trying to fill young students' heads with partisan conservative propaganda, or so all the mainstream media says.

A couple of general thoughts first: History textbooks are generally awful.* Even the best of them. They tell a story a mile wide and an inch deep, and are usually horribly written. Secondly, almost all history textbooks and history standards are written by history professors. And history professors are, pretty uniformly, liberal. There may not be an evil conspiracy to fill kids' heads with progressive claptrap, but there is an awful lot of groupthink, whether intentional or not. This means that, in general, any positive mention of the conservative point of view is going to run counter to the "consensus" of professional historians. Imagine if 80-90% of history profs were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Even though their cause may have long been lost, it would still be hard to get a fair hearing for even an honest appraisal of the proposition that maybe the Union was right. Finally, the mainstream media is at least as liberal as the history professorate. So when they tell the story of this grevious evil being perpetrated by historical heretics, they are not exactly being objective observers and reporters of fact.

That brings me to these standards. Here's a link to a blog I read in which a relatively moderate Wisconsin law professor (she voted for Obama) takes the media to task for mis-stating the so-called conservative bias in the new standards (her post also links back to the actual text of the standards, which the media has not provided). The funny thing to me is that all of these horrible, outrageous offenses against sound scholarship look almost exactly like what I teach in my US history class! I call it teaching kids both sides of the story, and teaching them HOW to think instead of WHAT to think. And it runs both ways. I teach my kids that Joe McCarthy's tactics were terrible, and also that Alger Hiss really was a spy. Those two propositions are not contradictory! I also teach them that both the people who excuse McCarthyism because of their own anti-communism and those who excuse Hiss because of their anti-McCarthyism are guilty of the same error, and that this guilt, in both cases, is founded in the best of intentions. I tell them why conservatives love Reagan, and why liberals don't. And I tell them the reverse about FDR. I give the very best defenses I can for both Nixon and Carter (and believe me, that's hard to do). I tell them how both Keynsianism and Supply-Side economics work in theory, and that neither model is perfect in practice. And over and over and over again I tell them that smart, educated, patriotic people can look at the same objective facts and draw different political and philosophical conclusions. Isn't that what we want for our kids?

Despite all the sound and fury, in the end this isn't going to matter much. Most of the controversy involves the teaching of modern ideas (like the importance of Barry Goldwater to the conservative movement). The vast majority of 11th grade US History classes are going to run out of steam somewhere in the late 1950s, with everything after that jammed into a single wrap-up lesson before the final exam (which will likely be 100 multiple-choice questions on a bubble-test machine base almost entirely off of the bold-print terms from the terrible textbook). I have a full year to teach just 1865 to the present, and I still have to cut corners everywhere to get it all done.

*NOTE--There are several egregious examples of "standard" textbooks which drive me nuts. The American Pageant is used by almost every kid in AP US History in the country. In my opinion, every smart kid who gets force-fed Pageant for a year ought to be inncoulated by giving them a copy of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People for graduation. What I would really love is to see kids read Bill Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope. That will never happen, because as a Reaganite (Secretary of Education under Reagan, back from the days when "A Nation At Risk" came out and pointed out that our public schools already stank almost 30 years ago), he is seen as a "conservative" historian. Which is laughable--if kids read Bennett, they'll be taught that FDR was a great president, that Dr. King was a hero, and that the United States was actually on the right side of history in the Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII. If believing that makes you a bad historian, well, I'm guilty.

1 comment:

bekster said...

From my experience in school, so much depends on the teacher. I couldn't tell you what any of my text books said, but I might be able to drudge up a memory of what a teacher said.

Thankfully there are some good ones out there. :)

(Though, yes, I know that teachers are supposed to comply with the standards of their school boards... "supposed to" being the active words.)