2014 Archives

Education a casualty of Texas textbook wars


The following first appeared in the Nov. 16, 2014, editions of The Dallas Morning News, The Waco Tribune, and The Longview News-Journal. Edward Countryman is a history professor at SMU. David Brockman teaches religious studies at SMU. Emile Lester teaches political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

November 18, 2014

By David Brockman, Edward Countryman and Emile Lester

Students in Texas public schools soon could be learning that democracy and our nation’s government are based on the ideas of biblical figures like Moses and King Solomon. That’s because the State Board of Education is set this month to adopt new textbooks that teach this peculiar distortion of American history.

Such an outcome would surely gladden the hearts of culture warriors who insist America is a distinctly Christian nation that should be guided by biblical law. But it should distress parents, scholars and others who recognize the profound influence religion has had in our history — as in the struggles against slavery and for racial equality — but object to exaggerating and misleading students about it.

Barring late changes by publishers this month, the new Texas textbooks will distort the facts on a variety of other topics as well. That’s largely because the textbooks are based on controversial curriculum standards board of education politicians put in place four years ago. Even the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute has called the state’s new history standards a “politicized distortion.” Sharing these concerns, we reviewed the proposed new textbooks for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund.

Our reviews identified numerous examples of politics trumping facts. Some textbook passages distorted mainstream science on climate change, for example. Others downplayed the role slavery played in causing the American Civil War. Still other biased passages promoted tea party ideology on issues like taxation, regulation and affirmative action.

Passages about religion were particularly problematic. In fact, the Fordham Institute had criticized how the state’s new curriculum standards “exaggerated, if not invented” biblical influences on America’s founding.

Moses, for example, stands alongside English philosopher John Locke in the standards as a major influence on our founding documents. The standards also require students to learn that the roots of democratic government today lie in the hazy, undefined concept of a “Judeo-Christian legal tradition.”

Publishers clearly struggled with how to cover these problematic standards. Ultimately, however, they settled on vague and at times misleading passages that suggest these exaggerated influences are actually true.

So a number of textbooks parrot the supposed influence of Moses on our political and legal systems even though the historical record doesn’t support this contention. In fact, John Adams, in an 1825 letter to Thomas Jefferson, explicitly rejected the notion the Ten Commandments influenced the Constitution.

One textbook claims “the roots of democratic government” date back “thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon.” Such a claim is absurd — the forms of government mentioned in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are monarchy and theocracy.

Another text teaches students that “the biblical idea of a covenant” — one between people and God — “contributed to our constitutional structure.” But the historical truth is that the American founders were inspired by the very different Lockean social contract — a voluntary agreement among “We the People” to create a government for themselves. Such a government would protect the rights of all — including, importantly, religious liberty.

Some textbooks also cloud the history of “separation of church and state,” a concept the Texas standards suggest isn’t a constitutional principle at all. Some students will never even encounter that phrase itself in their texts.

It’s troubling that publishers have missed an opportunity to lead students on a truthful exploration of the important influence religion has had in our nation’s history. They have instead essentially collaborated with politicians to make students’ knowledge of American history a casualty of the culture wars.

Sadly, this represents a triumph of ideology over ideas. As a consequence, schoolchildren won’t be able trust that their textbooks teach an honest accounting of our history.

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