Texas’s Whitewashed Version of U.S. History

“You can just hear the announcement on flights landing at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport,” my friend John said to me. “‘Please return your trays and seats to the upright position, and set your watches back 100 years.'” John was talking about the news out of Texas late Friday that a powerful group of Republican Christian conservatives on the state’s board of education have preliminarily approved new curriculum standards for teaching social studies, history and economics to K-12 public school students that are sanitized, whitewashed, reactionary and weighted heavily in favor of conservative Christian views.

Bear in mind, this is not just another wacky Texas-centric story. The curriculum standards adopted by this state will be incorporated into the nation’s textbooks in 2011 and remain for at least a decade, because Texas, with nearly 5 million students, is one of the publishing industry’s biggest clients. As this state’s textbooks go, so go the nation’s—which ought to be scaring the skirts off everyone who believes that our kids should be educated, not propagandized.

If these standards are adopted as written when they come up for a final vote in May, educators teaching about citizenship, for example, will have to bring up the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” “American exceptionalism” (whatever that means) will be a whole new subject, along with discussions of “the dangers of over-regulation” of industry.

In economics, educators will have to teach about the decline in the dollar’s value and the abandonment of the gold standard. The influence of the Judeo-Christian religion on the founding fathers must be taught, but without the writings of Thomas Jefferson—because that founding father wrote too much about the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason. And, of course, there was also his unshakable belief in the separation of church and state.

Don’t look for too many minority names to show up, because they have either been eliminated or their contributions downplayed. Native Americans are hardly mentioned, even though one member of a Texas tribe in his testimony before the board reminded them, “We were here a long time before you were.”

As for women, their historical roles have pretty much been relegated to the June Cleaver stay-at-home-mom model of the 1950s, according to board member Mary Helen Berlanga, a lawyer from Corpus Christi who opposed the new curriculum. When one working group drafted a section on how World War II created opportunities for women to be employed in all kinds of industries not open to them before, the section was taken out by the board majority. When that same working group wanted to include discussions on how sex and gender roles have changed over the decades, a conservative member said that would lead to teaching about “transvestites and all sorts of people with different sexual proclivities,” Berlanga says. As for pop music culture, hip-hop is out, country-western is in.

These are just a few of the more than 160 curriculum changes that have been adopted by a 15-member elected  board that is made up of only five educators or former educators. Others are a dentist, a newspaper publisher, a couple of lawyers and several real estate brokers. None are experts in the subjects for which they have been mandated by state law to establish curriculum standards.

The vote came over the objections of the five Democrats on the board—who were also the only five people of color—and who, for three days in Austin, argued passionately for a more inclusive curriculum that would recognize the rich diversity of American life and thought.

“This is frightening. … It is history as seen through the eyes of Anglos,” says Berlanga, who stormed out of the last hours of the meeting, calling her colleagues’ actions an attempt to “whitewash” history. Earlier, Berlanga had made an impassioned appeal for the inclusion of the names of just one or two of the dozens of Tejanos who died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett and William Travis. She lost.

“I grew up not knowing that Tejanos (Mexicans who lived in Texas at the time of the revolution) died there,” she says. “There was nothing about them in our history books. I would have been so proud [as a child] to know that my people were heroes of the Alamo.”

In a state with a majority Latino population, only 19 Hispanic figures met the majority’s approval for inclusion in the textbooks, Berlanga says. And the board majority certainly didn’t want to talk about anything “bad” in America—like discrimination.  “Emphasize the good,” they said, according to Berlanga. This is a blatant example of a whitewashed version of U.S. history.

They didn’t want any mention of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynching of blacks or the killings of innocent Hispanics by the Texas Rangers in the early years of the 20th Century. But, Berlanga points out, “We can never heal as a nation if we’re not willing to talk about the things that are not perfect in America, and teach our children how we have become better.”

Ironically, Helen Keller is in the curriculum but iconic farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta is out. Those who opposed Huerta’s inclusion told Berlanga it is because “she is a socialist.” But so was Keller, Berlanga pointed out to them. She’s described in her biographies as not just a socialist, but a radical socialist.

Huerta’s compadre Cesar Chavez was initially dropped, but later reinstated after protests from Latino groups. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued successfully as a young lawyer in 1954 that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, also barely made the cut. The board’s conservatives argued that he hadn’t “contributed” anything to American life. When that word got out, the outcry was so great that Marshall is now in.

“[The vote] was a great defeat,” Berlanga says. “But they didn’t defeat me—they defeated the kids in our communities who need positive role models and the tools to live and compete in the real world, not some fantasy world.” If these standards become the norm, she adds, we will see “more dropouts, more kids lost” because the educational system will have failed them again.

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