The Battle Over History

04.02.10 | Comment?

The news outlets representing both ends of the political spectrum have been generating a lot of buzz over politics playing out in Texas curriculum meetings. The curriculum in Texas is important because we are one of the country’s biggest customers of textbook publishers. As goes Texas, so goes the country. The funny thing is that this situation is far from new. I remember hearing the exact same thing when I was a kid, except that Texas and California were mentioned in the same breath. I wonder what happened to California? Have their budget woes made them that irrelevant, or is everyone of the same political tendencies and therefore there’s no juicy news over disagreements?

The following essay was written by Ed Wetterman, a Texas junior high social studies teacher and department head, who recently attended a state association meeting. He posted the essay below on his Facebook account and has graciously allowed me to repost it here so it may be more easily linked.


Texas Social Studies Supervisors Association

I attended the TSSA conference in Austin and it was great. I learned some new practices for the classroom, how to improve student achievement, and some on how to lower the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Of course the most interesting part of the conference was today. It began with a discussion by Dr. James B. Kracht of Texas A&M and Dr. Jesus de la Teja, professor and chairman of History at Texas State University and the first Texas State Historian. Both men served on the Social Studies committee to revise the TEKs that have caused so much national controversy, and hearing their stories was most interesting.

Some of the national bruhaha has been over details of the State Mandated Curriculum. As I’m sure you have heard on various news programs (FOX) and others, some of these changes have been met with anger and misunderstanding. I’ll be honest, I was NOT happy with the soundbites I heard either.

So, here is what I learned. First they were brutally honest about how difficult it is to work with elected folks who are not educators to write curriculum. Just as the nation is polarized into left and right, liberal and conservative, these same polarizations came into play during the three months of debate on the revision of the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills-that every public school must teach and be tested on using standardized testing).

Dr. Teja put it best (I’m paraphrasing from memory, notes, and my own ideas on the subject). Many on the left want to focus on the ugly and bad things America has done to various groups throughout our history to the exclusion of any good. Meanwhile the right want to present social studies in an Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, everything was so much better before Vietnam vision, without ever confronting the evils of our history. Man did I agree with this proposition! Meanwhile, the truth, as it usually is, is somewhere in the middle.

Social studies teachers in general believe that we must teach the good and the bad. Look, if America was as bad as the left wants to paint us, then why are people from all over the world still trying to immigrate here? But it is just as wrong to paint an Anglo-centric, saving the savages from themselves, in a perfect fifties world. Any historian will tell you that history is messy, and it is out of this mess that many good things have occurred. Dr. Martin Luther King was thought to be a rabble rouser and a dangerous man forty years ago by many of those in power. Today he is recognized for the good things he did, things he set out to do, and his vision that is coming to pass. The truth is many Americans were disenfranchised in the 50s, were not given their civil rights, and there truly were never the “good old days.” Social studies should teach inclusively, so that all Americans, whatever their background, can identify with the history of our nation, and be a true part of it. All cultures are part of our story and should be celebrated.

So…they debated with people, who are not educators, on both extremes. Not the best working situation. Meanwhile the media went for soundbites that in actuality are NOT true. Example One: Fox reported and it was picked up by everyone that “They are cutting Thomas Jefferson out of the curriculum standards.” This is WRONG! Curriculum consists of many areas. Thomas Jefferson is taught as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman of the Early Republic, a diplomat to France, a member of Washington’s first Cabinet, the leader of the Democratic-Republican party, an anti-federalist, who served as the 3rd President of the United States, was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, and saw the US through many difficulties with England and France. What they “cut” was his LISTING as one of the great enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. And that was only as a LISTING! They never said he wasn’t a great thinker, and many of the ideas of the Enlightenment, he incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and this is STILL taught.

The media doesn’t tell you all that does it? That isn’t good story. The good story was “Texas cuts Jefferson from Curriculum standards.” So…do you still believe everything you read or hear on Fox news? Fair and balanced? hmmm. What’s really funny to my independent ass, is that I heard my Left friends shouting about those Crazy Conservatives, and my Right friends saying look what those damn leftists are doing! Geez….get REAL FOLKS!

Example Two: “Texas got rid of the concept of Capitalism.” Boy the Righteous Republicans went nuts with this one. Look up the definition of Capitalism: “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” In the new standards, they replaced the word Capitalism with Free Enterprise. “freedom of private business to organize and operate for profit in a competitive system without interference by government beyond regulation necessary to protect public interest and keep the national economy in balance.” (Merrriam Webster-online). Now, which better represents what we have? Is there a difference? Is it teaching socialism? Come on now!

Example Three: Changing the government LISTING from Democracy to Republic (Both are still taught in the Standards, but again, that’s not good media soundbites). Sigh.. Left and Right again. Left=Democrats=sounds like Democracy, while the Right=Republicans=sounds like Republic…

WRONGGGGGGGGGGG!!!! Folks, Democracy and Republic have nothing to do with the modern political parties, other than they are both involved in the process of Democracy in our Republic! Democracy is when the citizens of a place vote on every law and create government. Think ancient Athens. Was it good? Did everyone vote? Certainly not the slaves, non-citizens, or women. A Republic is when we elect others to make our laws and see to the practice of government in the name of the people (not socialist PEOPLE, but you know…American people). That is what we have! Move on.

Fox also recently reported that evil South Carolina was removing the Founding Father’s from their US History standards in High School. Folks, for over thirty years, Texas and many other states, have traditionally taught the Founding Fathers in JUNIOR HIGH 8th grade, not in high school. See South Carolina was generally moving into the more traditionalist way of teaching this subject, not removing it from being taught. Fox portrayed South Carolina as believing that the early republic is not important. Simply not true.

Were there problems? YES! However, these problems come from politically minded, non-educators, who were elected to serve on the state board of education, who came with an agenda that truly does not serve all our students. Despite this, I think if anyone bothers to read the entire TEKS when they are published in May, you will find that Thomas Jefferson is still in there, Democracy is still in there, and so is Capitalism. We cannot be so caught up in our own political agendas that we don’t tell our history (stories) in ways that are meaningful to our multi-cultural students. To put it another way, all Americans should see themselves as a part of our US story.

American history is made up of lots of different parts, some good, some bad. It must have balance (not the Fox variety), and certainly NOT the expression of the two extreme views that so divide our nation today. The truth is that it is the LIST of the examples that has caused all this craziness, not the actual TEKS that state things like: Students should be able to identify important political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers.

Finally, a last point. State standards do not deprive teachers of using many people, events, or examples in their lesson that are NOT mentioned in the standards. In fact, this may come from district curriculum that best serves their own student populations. Local curriculum should be written in ways that are meaningful to the children in each individual school district. The state Curriculum TEKS starting points, not an ending point. Narrow-minded, restricted perspectives are not what our students need or deserve.

So I learned a lot about what happened, and yes, I am not happy with all the changes, but overall I think they did their best given the extremist politicos that were also involved in the debates.

The TSSSA drafted a statement that will be sent out in the next few days to all the media outlets. I bet you don’t read it or hear it. No one wants common sense anymore.

Hope I’ve enlightened some of ya’ll that bothered to read this long post.

Remember, we are ALL Americans, even those on the other side.

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