By David Waters
As a culture war battleground, revision of the social studies curriculum standards in Texas isn’t likely to stir the same level of rancor as abortion or gay marriage. Will students really care if the textbooks they skim to pass multiple-choice tests refer to “free enterprise” rather than “capitalism” or “constitutional republic” rather than “democratic republic”?
It’s doubtful. But the revisions tentatively approved by the state education board’s 10 Republican members do raise interesting questions. What role should politics play in what our schools are teaching (or not teaching) about American history? More importantly, how should teachers handle the growing tensions between religious conservatives and secular progressives?
Over the past year, religious conservatives clearly dominated the board’s discussions and suggested revisions, which were given preliminary approval earlier this month. (A final vote is scheduled for May.) The most obvious example of that influence was the board’s 10-5 party-line rejection of a standard requiring students to learn that the nation’s Founders “protected religious freedom by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.”
Before that amendment was rejected, board member Cynthia Dunbar, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School, argued that the Founding Fathers didn’t intend to separate church and state, but rather did intend to promote religion. The board approved her revisions, which included cutting Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence and promoter of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state”), and replacing him with religious figures such as St.Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin.
“The Enlightenment was not the only philosophy on which these revolutions were based,” Ms. Dunbar told reporters.
Among other interesting revisions, the board:
— Mandated the observance of ‘Celebrate Freedom Week.’
— Added Diwali (Hindu, Sikh and Jain) and Hajj (Muslim) to a list of teachable religious holidays.
— Added instruction on the significance of the Social Gospel, Social Darwinism, and 20th Century missionaries,
— Added a unit on “the conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and 1990s, including instruction about the Moral Majority, Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation and the NRA.
In a sharp response to the board’s revisions, the Interfaith Alliance sent a letter this week to top publishing companies urging them to reject the Texas standards, which could be included in textbooks across the country.
“The Texas (board) members certainly are entitled to believe whatever they want about our country and its history,” Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance and an On Faith panelist, said in a statement.
“The problem arises when their religious beliefs begin to essentially rewrite history for our children. Separation of church and state was a core tenet of our nation’s founding. Whether you like him or not, Thomas Jefferson was a leading thinker during the Enlightenment. It’s almost unfathomable to think that Texas schoolchildren won’t learn these basic facts now.”
Dr. Don McElroy, the board’s conservative leader, doesn’t quite see it that way, of course. In a radio interview this week. McElroy said the board is merely trying to balance what it sees as a secular and liberal bias in curriculum.
“I’m not saying that they were trying to make this a biblical nation or anything like that, but the principles on which (America) was founded were biblical,” McElroy said. “The secularists say there is no truth, there is no God, and that we have just evolved. That’s not what’s in the declaration, in the founding document of our country.”
One man’s balance is another man’s revisionist history. So who’s right, Gaddy or McElroy? Is the Texas State Board of Education rewriting American history, or merely correcting it? And will middle and high school students notice?