The Common Good
May 2010

Those Who Will Not Learn from History

by John Fea | May 2010

How Texas decides what your children will study about our past.

Like it or not, the far-Right members of the Texas State Board of Education may have already decided what your children will learn about American history.

The Board is in the midst of a major revision to the state’s social studies standards. It is well known that textbook publishers cater to their largest clients. California, the nation’s largest textbook market, is bankrupt; Texas is the second largest. This means that, when it comes to teaching American history, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.
Two of the consultants hired last year by the conservative members of the Texas Board are David Barton and Peter Marshall. Both run ministries that promote the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and use the past for the purpose of promoting Republican politics. Neither man is a trained historian, but their books are wildly popular among the Christian Right.
In January and March, the Board made decisions about who was in and who was out of the new curriculum. Since far-Right conservatives currently hold a majority of seats, they managed to push through most of the revisions they wanted.
For example, in state social studies standards on how Americans have worked to expand their economic opportunities and political rights, the Board deleted those Americans’ “racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups” as a factor to consider—even though this standard was part of a larger category focused on “how people from various groups contribute to our national identity.”
Board conservatives decided to remove the word “imperialism” from the American history curriculum and replace it with “expansionism.” They approved a statement endorsing American exceptionalism, the idea that America has a special destiny to spread its ideals and values to the world. They also approved a statement vindicating the activities of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, by saying later information “confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.” Board conservatives inserted William F. Buckley and Newt Gingrich into the standards, but rejected the inclusion of Ted Kennedy.
As a historian, I am appalled at the way politics is driving these debates in Texas. Ted Kennedy was one of the most significant legislators in U.S. history. Students should learn about him—whether they (or their parents) agree with his politics or not. They should also learn that American involvement in the world has, at times, been less than virtuous. Patriotism means that we love our country despite its flaws, not in ignorance of them.
But what bothers me most is the failure of the Texas Board to understand the place of history in the school curriculum. History is not about who’s “in” or “out.” It is, rather, a discipline that has the power to transform the lives of students by teaching them virtues essential to the kind of human flourishing and civic responsibility that the United States desperately needs. Students should encounter the American past in all its fullness. They need to learn about heroic figures, as well as historical actors with whom they might disagree. Such encounters, when led by a good history educator, teach children empathy and civility for people and ideas that they find to be different or strange.
History teaches us that we are part of something larger than ourselves—a community made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs. A Christian might say that such a community is filled with human beings who have inherent dignity and worth because they were created in God’s image. Diverse expressions of the human experience should thus find their way into the stories we tell about the past. This is not “political correctness”; it is good history. And, I might add, good theology.
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennyslvania. He is completing a book on the idea of America as a Christian nation and blogs at www.philipvickersfithian.com.
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