At the beginning of every high school history class I ever taught, I did a lesson on the goals of learning history. Some goals are obvious—to know our past, for instance; others are subtle, like the fact that learning history encourages critical thinking.
This past week, the Texas Board of Education voted on a controversial set of revisions to public-school history textbooks that seems to downplay student critical thinking. Several revisions included minimizing the role of Civil Rights, feminist, and Latino movements; validating the claims of Joseph McCarthy; and debunking the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
The 9-to-5 vote was split along party lines. Republicans were in the majority; Democrats decried the legislation as a conservative take-over of mainstream historical interpretation.
Oddly enough, it was a group of Christians who were the most vocal proponents of these revisions. In an invocation during one of the Board meetings, law professor Cynthia Dunbar affirmed that solid, conservative history can help re-establish America as “a Christian land governed by Christian principals.” No wonder there was such vehemence against the separation of church and state by the Board’s majority.
Politicians who favored the revisions argued that they were simply correcting a left-leaning bias in the textbooks to begin with, what they called “revisionist” history. But at this point, it’s hard to tell who the true revisionists really are.
Writing history is difficult. It is not as simple as listing a set of cold, hard facts for a reader. History—good history—weaves events into a narrative quilt that reveals how facts relate to one another and influence humanity’s story. This inspires critical thinking about the past, and it proposes how the past informs our present and future.
It is true that every writer of history decides what particular facts are relevant. These decisions are motivated by a plethora of factors. This was the bone of contention in the Texas Board of Education.
Over 400 amendments to the legislation were debated and voted on. Results were telling: The first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, will not have any of his writings published in the curriculum; and any mention of hip hop’s influence in contemporary culture was nixed.
Lesson standards now require that students consider the “unintended consequences” of Affirmative Action and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda.
Fortunately, an amendment that would have excluded Deist Thomas Jefferson from a list of the most important American Founders did not pass. On a positive note, Thomas Edison will be reinstated as an important figure in American industrialism.
What we can all learn from the Texas Board of Education’s debacle is that history is not entirely objective. We all approach history from our own biases. My only problem with the Board’s decision is that these textbook debates have erupted to the detriment of our children.
Emphasizing one’s interpretation of history over others–especially when it caters to one brand of religious ideology–is not good history; in fact, it disregards critical thinking.
When it intends to educate, the writing of history is not supposed to be politicized. Textbooks should expose students to a variety of historical perspectives so that students can wrestle with the complex issues of yesteryear.
Christians, in particular, should champion this approach, for we believe that it is in one’s ability to think critically that faith in the one, true God becomes most profound.
Ultimately, taking away one’s ability to think critically about history dulls the very minds and imaginations of potential leaders of tomorrow. And when it is a group of Christians robbing students of this ability in the public sphere, it also threatens the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith as a whole.
“American History Preserved in Textbooks” (http://www.lc.org/index.cfm?PID=14100&PRID=943 )
“Despite Protests, Texas Board Passes Conservative Textbook Curriculum” (http://www.blackvoicenews.com/news/news-wire/44491-despite-protests-texas-board-passes-conservative-textbook-curriculum.html)
“The Texas Textbook War in Historical Context” (http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/5192/9/)