Wednesday, June 2, 2010



The brouhaha over the new Texas social studies standards has not died down. The Texas Board of Education may have passed the revised standards, but the debate continues around the country. In fact, the liberal backlash has already started encouraging other states to pull away from the Texas standards, which the press has spun for months as the nefarious work of Christian conservatives to force their right-wing agenda into Texas textbooks.

On May 16th, The Guardian's headline claimed, "Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns."

"Texas textbooks rewrite history" declared the student newspaper of DePaul University on May 31st.

Michael Bimbaum of The Washington Post offers some balance with his May 22 headline: "Texas board approves social studies standards that perceived liberal bias."

After months of media attention, including one solid month of receiving feedback from the public, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) on May 21st approved revisions to its state standards for social studies - revisions that focus on America's great documents and exceptional individuals and organizations.

After California, Texas purchases more textbooks than any other state, which means its standards could influence publishers who sell textbooks, not just to Texas, but to all states in the union. In response to Texas' controversial standards, the California Senate passed bill SB1451 on Friday May 28 requiring the California State Board of Education to review the content of textbooks and other instructional materials. The review will report any subject matter it considers influenced by the Texas standards and out of line with California's standards.

"Disturbing" New Standards?

According to the critics, the new social studies standards work to promote the ideologies of the Christian Right. According to the standards' supporters, however, the purpose of the revisions is to combat the liberal rewriting of history and give students a more balanced view of their American heritage.

"Liberal fringe efforts to complicate, obfuscate, and denigrate our heritage and history must be rejected," said Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affairs at the Liberty Institute.

Answering Complaints:

"There is a battle for the soul of education," said Mavis Knight, a liberal member of the Texas education board. "They're trying to indoctrinate with American exceptionalism, the Christian founding of this country, the free enterprise system..."

Ms. Knight's statement reveals her bias. One hundred years ago teaching those things was not considered "indoctrination" but simply "general education."

One writer from The Washington Post lamented on May 22nd that the goal of the Texas SBOE was "to minimize the legitimate role of the brilliant Thomas Jefferson; improperly explain the meaning and importance to the country’s development of the phrase "separation of church and state"; incorrectly say that the McCarthyism of the 1950s was vindicated; require that that the United States be referred to as a "constitutional republic" rather than "democratic..."

Unfortunately, the author is not alone in her alarm, and the errors in her statement must be answered:

Thomas Jefferson:

In fact, the standards not only have retained Thomas Jefferson, but require students to study the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's most important piece of work. Students will now be required to recite the first paragraph of the Declaration every year during the school's Freedom Week:

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness--That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed."

Regarding "proper" explanations of the phrase "separation of church and state" - America has been battling over that one for decades. In the past, educators have felt obliged to avoid focusing on the religious faith that has permeated American history, sidestepping documents that sound too "Christian." The revised standards encourage students to read documents like The Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony. Critics of the revised standards see the inclusion of The Mayflower Compact as an underhanded way of forcing Christianity on students, but the hard reality is that the colonists were dedicated Christians, and this was their first governing document. The fact that certain people regard the Mayflower Compact as dangerous reading material reveals their bias against America's religious history.


Critics of the standards have consistently focused on a single sentence (among the multitudes of pages of standards) in which McCarthy is said to be vindicated. Here's what the standards actually say:

"...describe how McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms race, and the space race increased Cold War tensions and how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government "

The standards do not vindicate McCarthy's methods, but treat McCarthyism as one factor that increased Cold War tensions. The Venona Project, in which Soviet messages were obtained and decoded, did reveal spies in the US government working for the Soviets, in addition to Canadian, Australian, and British spies. Along with McCarthyism, the Venona Project is a part of US history.

Constitutional Republic:

The revised standards refer to America as a constitutional republic and not a democracy, because America is in fact a constitutional republic and not a democracy.

The Slave Trade:

An additional major complaint about the revised standards involves one line in the 8th Grade standards, in which the term "slave trade" is removed and is replaced with "Atlantic triangular trade" to the horror of critics. To hear this reported, it would seem the Texas SBOE members wanted to pretend slavery never existed and wanted to use "Atlantic triangular trade" as a euphemism for "slave trade."

Despite what half the country now thinks, students in Texas will be taught about the slave trade. In the context, the revised standards say, "explain reasons for the development of the plantation system, the Atlantic triangular trade, and the spread of slavery;" Historically, the slave trade was one prong of a bigger picture - the Atlantic triangular trade - and the expanded standards reflect the bigger picture.

Other Controversial Changes:

-"Capitalism" has been replaced with the term "free enterprise" throughout the standards to avoid the negative connotation of "capitalist." ("You know, 'capitalist pig!'" said Republican board member Terri Leo.) However, at the beginning of the standards for each affected grade there is a note, "Students identify the role of the U.S. free enterprise system within the parameters of this course and understand that this system may also be referenced as capitalism or the free market system."

-Students in the 8th grade will be required to analyze Abraham Lincoln's first and second inaugural address and his Gettysburg Address, including his "ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government", and contrast them with the ideas that Jefferson Davis presented in his inaugural address.

-Students will have to compare and contrast the phrase "separation of church and state" with the actual words of the Constitution.

-High school students in US History since 1877 will be encouraged to discuss the, "solvency of long term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare."

While some may disagree with them, these standards cannot reasonably be considered "disturbing."

A Multitude Of Good Things:

Despite the criticisms, the revised standards do some excellent things. They require students to read The US Constitution and Bill of Rights, along with the Declaration of Independence. They encourage students to read primary documents, biographies, poetry and songs of great Americans rather than the legends, fictional stories, and even Roman myths that were previously in the standards. The standards have added the names of dozens of great Americans, some well known like Patrick Henry and others less well known, like Wentworth Cheswell, the Revolutionary War patriot who rode North to warn the colonists the night that Paul Revere rode West. Cheswell was a free-born black man and is considered the first African American elected to public office.

If It's Diversity You Want:

"They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist," said Democrat Mary Helen Berlanga in March.

The new Texas standards absolutely do not promote only white males. The additional names in the standards include a wide variety of African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians, both men and women. One major purpose of the new standards is to focus on heroes in American history who can inspire students and draw their admiration, and throughout the grades, those Americans come from a variety of genetic and cultural backgrounds.

For instance, first graders already were required to learn about Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. They will now also be taught about Garrett Augustus Morgan, a black inventor who holds the patent for the first traffic light. Morgan is famous for having used his respiratory protective hood invention (an early gas mask) to save the lives of people trapped in a tunnel filled with deadly fumes.

Along with Thurgood Marshall, John Hancock, and Theodore Roosevelt (these last two were also newly added) second graders now get to learn about Irma Rangel, the first female Mexican American legislator. Also in the second grade, Amelia Earhart and Robert Fulton are joined by great African Americans George Washington Carver and W. E. B. DuBois. Carver is renowned as an inventor and scientist who developed a multitude of products from peanuts. DuBois was the first African American graduate of Harvard and a civil rights activist. Note to the critics: DuBois was not particularly conservative in his politics.

Starting in the third grade, students will be required to study the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence every year during Freedom Week. According to the third grade standards, "The study of the Declaration of Independence must include the study of the relationship of the ideas expressed in that document to subsequent American history, including the relationship of its ideas to the rich diversity of our people as a nation of immigrants, the American Revolution, the formulation of the U.S. Constitution, and the abolitionist movement, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the women’s suffrage movement."

Third graders will also learn about Benjamin Banneker, a free African American astronomer, mathematician, farmer and surveyor who predicted solar and lunar eclipses and published a series of almanacs that ran for six years from 1792 through 1797.

Fourth graders among other things, will "summarize the significant contributions of individuals such as Texians William B. Travis, James Bowie, David Crockett, George Childress, and Sidney Sherman; Tejanos Juan N. Seguín, Plácido Benavides, and Francisco Ruiz; Mexicans Antonio López de Santa Anna and Vicente Filisola; and noncombatants Susanna Dickinson and Enrique Esparza."

From Kindergarten through High School, classrooms will honor significant Americans from all walks of life. Poets and artists, scientists and great thinkers, men and women of many skin shades are included.


The Texas standards have become more balanced, despite the attacks of the critics. Yes, seventh graders will be required to learn about the evangelical movement of the late 20th century; they will also have to learn about the Populists, women's suffrage, agrarian groups, and labor unions. Ronald Reagan and President Barack Obama are both included, and the Cherokee Trail of Tears is there as well.

The new Texas standards do not ignore the troubled times in America's history or her struggles, but they still promote America as a great country filled with remarkable people. Anybody who has a true gripe with the standards should look through them carefully and not attack based on a few lines taken out of context by those with their own agendas.

The standards will be used in classrooms beginning in the 2011-2012 school year after teachers have had time to be trained.

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