Texas debates how history should be taught

Rewriting the history curriculum has become an ideological battleground in Texas.
Rewriting the history curriculum has become an ideological battleground in Texas.

The latest ideological battle over what gets taught in U.S. public schools is being waged in Texas, where the state board of education is considering new classroom standards that will determine how history is taught for the next decade.

Several students, parents, and lawmakers lobbied Jan. 13 for more diversity in Texas’s social studies curriculum, while religious activists are pressing for more emphasis on the role of Christianity in how the nation was formed. The debate could have implications for schools outside the state as well, because Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the nation.

In more than six hours of public testimony, dozens of people took their chance to help shape the way millions of Texas school children learn topics from the Roman Empire to the entrepreneurial success of billionaire Bill Gates.

The Jan. 13 public hearing set up a tentative vote on the new standards later in the week. But, as usual in votes before the conservative-led board, the wide-reaching guidelines are full of potential ideological flashpoints.

Early quibbles over how much prominence to give civil-rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and the inclusion of Christmas seem to have been smoothed over. Board Chairman Gail Lowe said at the start of the hearing that Chavez and Christmas will not be removed from the standards.

But board members are crafting dozens of amendments to be raised for consideration before the tentative vote. The 15-member board won’t adopt final standards until March.

The curriculum it chooses will set the guideposts for teaching history and social studies to some 4.8 million K-12 students for 10 years. The standards will be used to develop state tests, and they also could be used by textbook publishers who develop material for the nation based on Texas.

State Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, noted the lack of any Latinos in fifth-grade social studies lessons and asked the board to add Cesar Chavez, Texas’ first Mexican American female legislator, Rep. Irma Rangel, and longtime Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez to the list of required learning.

“We may not have landed on Plymouth Rock, but our contributions to the Southwest will not be marginalized,” Chavez said. Dozens of three-minute speeches echoed her concerns.

But Donna Starnes of Dallas suggested that too much emphasis already was being placed on ethnicity in the proposed draft.

“Children need to learn that they are Americans first and foremost, and every American citizen has the ability to move beyond past injustices,” Starnes said. “Let’s teach our children about the best examples of achievement through hard work and struggle. … Let’s not encourage children to be victims.”

Several people also asked the board to further acknowledge Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion.

“I would like other people to know that I’m not Osama bin Laden,” said 15-year-old Harsimran Singh, who attends Round Rock High School. “I know a little bit about Christianity; I would like other people to know about my religion as well.”

Another Sikh, Shammi Gill of Houston, presented the board with a petition signed by hundreds of people, seeking more discussion of Sikhism in social studies.

Much of the testimony involved how much emphasis should be given to the religious beliefs of the nation’s founding fathers, with some activists seeking to promote and highlight their Christianity. Others defended the separation of church and state.

“Some board members and the non-expert ideologues they appointed to a review panel have made it clear that they want students to learn that the founding fathers intended America to be an explicitly Christian nation, with laws based on their own narrow interpretations of the Bible,” Kathy Miller said before the hearing. Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes initiatives pushed by Christian conservatives.

Former board chairman Don McLeroy, a Republican from College Station, had said the conservative efforts have been misconstrued.

“I don’t see anyone wanting to say that this is a Christian nation or anything like that,” McLeroy said. “The argument is that the principles on which [the nation] has been founded are biblically based.”

Historians also signed up to testify and will be monitoring the amendments.

“An education without some understanding of the profound role of religion in our nation’s history and its contributions to our nation’s success is an incomplete education, and our courts have often said as much,” said Derek Davis, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

“What violates the Constitution is presenting material that either prefers Christianity over other faiths or depicts the United States as a Christian nation in some legal or constitutional sense.”

Doing so would infringe on the religious liberties of students across Texas, said Davis, who is also dean of the College of Humanities at the school.


Texas State Board of Education

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