By Smith, Evan
Newsweek , Vol. 155, No. 17
Texas. State Board of Education--Political aspects
Social science education--Curricula
Social science education--Political aspects
Secondary education--Political aspects
Byline: Evan Smith
What a conservative rewriting of history tells us about how Texans view the world, which is, for them, Texas.
given the redness of my home state of Texas at the moment--more crimson than rose--you'd be forgiven for dismissing the recent headline-making flap over revisions to our high-school social-studies curriculum as pure politics. A near majority of the duly elected 15 members of the State Board of Education (SBOE) is locked in a hyperconservative embrace, aligned as a bloc to promote a social-issues-centric view of the world. Other contemporary controversies involving the SBOE have centered on neutering the sex-education component of the science curriculum, taking anything even vaguely PG-rated out of health textbooks (say, a line drawing of a woman's bare breast in a section on self-exam), and questioning the appropriateness of teaching the "theory" of evolution without also teaching creationism. But if those fights were largely relegated to the undercard, the social-studies controversy is a top-draw heavyweight brawl, with the jeering eyes of the nation upon us.
Every 10 years, the SBOE reexamines what the 4.7 million students in public high schools are taught on a variety of subjects. (As opposed to how it's done in other states, this process is conducted outside the purview of the commissioner of education or the state education agency.) After appointing and then hearing from panels of expert "reviewers," the board considers and votes on a variety of curriculum changes: add this, tweak that, outright eliminate something else.
This time around, the vote is in May, but trouble's been brewing since January, when it became clear that the list of historical figures deemed worthy of inclusion in civics textbooks was up for discussion: at various points, Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez were among those on the chopping block, while the inventor of the yo-yo (I'm not making this up) was cheerfully inserted and the laundering of Joseph McCarthy's reputation was contemplated. Aesop's fables were found wanting, as was a discussion of the separation of church and state. There was also a problem of race and ethnicity--or lack thereof. Board members not allied with the conservative bloc complained that the non-Anglo history of the state was getting increasingly short shrift--despite the demographic makeup of the Alamo battlefield, or the fact that Texas will soon be majority Hispanic.
All over the country, educators and progressives recoiled, believing that the befouled byproducts of this process would force changes to their own curricula, given the Lone Star State's massive footprint as a consumer of textbooks. Although the executive director of the Association of American Publishers has called the pervasive influence of Texas "an urban myth," the damage was done--as goes Texas, it was feared, so goes the country.
It's certainly true that some of this owes to conservative ideology asserting itself in a conservative state that Barack Obama lost in 2008 and would lose even more resoundingly today. But there's something else at work--and a clue to it can be found in another revision pushed by one of the most vocal participants in the process. Bill Ames, a conservative gadfly appointed by former board chair and creationism proponent Don McLeroy, attempted to rally everyone round the flag of American exceptionalism--which he described as the belief that America is "not only unique but superior," and that its citizens are "divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment. …