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Posted by on May 24, 2010 in Education, Places, Politics, Religion, Society | 0 comments

Texas School Board Approves Social Conservatives’ New Curriculum Standards

Despite the last-minute return of Thomas Jefferson to a list of political philosophers whose ideas were influential in the founding of the United States, the religious extremists on the Texas School Board of Education took care to obscure his influence on making the concept of a “wall of separation” between church and state one of the bedrock principles in American life. Among the many appalling amendments that board member Don McLeroy slipped in without public debate, at the last possible moment, was this one, an additional Student Expectation for 8th grade History:

(F) Contrast the Founders’ intent relative to the wording of the First Amendment’s
Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, with the popular term “Separation
of church and state”.

The “popular term”? That’s a nice touch, given this “popular term” comes from Thomas Jefferson’s own pen.

McLeroy’s justification for this addition is that it:

Stimulates critical thinking relating to the actual wording in the First
Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

I think that “critical thinking” is probably the last thing McLeroy has in mind.

The link to these amendments comes via Laurie Lebo at ReligionDispatches.org:

In addition to his 11th-hour attempt to require students to learn that the founders intended to create a theocracy, [McLeroy] has also proposed:

Putting increased emphasis on the studying of the Declaration of Independence “at the same level” as the Constitution.

As I’ve written before, the board’s conservative-voting bloc wants to equate the Declaration with the Constitution in order to foster the notion of American exceptionalism (God loves me more because I’m an American) and the idea that we are a Christian nation. The problem is that nowhere in the Constitution is God mentioned, but in the Declaration, Jefferson refers to a creator as well as “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

In a discussion of civil rights, McLeroy wants to remove the 1948 case of Delgado v. Bastrop, which barred segregation of students of Mexican descent in Texas public schools, and replace it with the 2009 case of Ricci v. DeStafano, in which white firefighters sued over Connecticut hiring practices, and the 2005 case of Kelo v. City of New London, which dealt with government powers of eminent domain.

McLeroy also wants to downplay Progressive Era reforms and said reformers like Upton Sinclair, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois as well as modern historians are “obsessed with oppression.”

Also, he wants students to “discuss alternatives regarding long term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, given the decreasing worker to retiree ratio.”

Democrats on the SBOE (School Board of Education) were incensed at being asked to approve these new additions at the last minute and with no discussion:

Board Democrats accused the Republicans of a “cut-and-paste” job on the standards that included a flurry of late amendments undoing much of the work of teachers and academics who were appointed to review teams to draft the curriculum requirements last year.

“Here we are trying to approve standards for our children that will be used for years and we are being asked to approve all these last-minute cut-and-paste proposals,” said Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi.

“I don’t think any teacher would accept work like this,” she said. “They would have thrown this paper in the trash. We’ve done an injustice to the children of this state.”

Board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, called the proposal a “travesty.”

“The board has made these standards political and had little academic discussion about what students need to learn,” she said. “I am ashamed of what we have done to the students and teachers of this state.”

Mark Kleiman, adding up all the inexplicable insanity from just the past week, concludes that “Republicans are crazy“:

Seriously.

I mean crazy.

Like, completely out of their friggin’ minds.

We’re not talking obscure bloggers or fringe groups; we’re talking about the ruling faction on the Texas board of education, led by an appointee of the Governor, voting not to describe the United States as “democratic;” the Republican nominee for the United States Senate from Kentucky making up facts about the Americans with Disabilities Act (and calling it “un-American” for a U.S. President to criticize a foreign oil company for devastating the Gulf Coast); and the former Speaker of the House saying that his comparison of the threat to the country from the Obama Administration to the threats from Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia was “reasoned and compelling.”

All this calls for diagnosis rather than refutation.

Ron Chusid has an excellent piece on this attempt to disappear American history. Ironically, “it was the more Taliban-like party which supported remodeling our educational system more along the Soviet model to promote ideological purity.The Texas Board of Education has voted to drop the actual facts about our history down an Orwellian memory hole.”

Ron notes that other states are not taking this substitution of right-wing ideology for historical reality lying down:

Several states are considering legislation to prohibit the use of text books which are rewritten on such ideological grounds. I wonder if this might even accelerate a move towards ebooks in the classrooms, making it easier to have books with different versions of history available. If hard copies are made they might even have red and blue covers.In addition to efforts by other state legislatures to prohibit the purchase of text books written with such ideological bias I would love to see universities refuse to accept diplomas from Texas high schools and require applicants from Texas to pass a high school equivalency exam which includes actual American history.

Valerie Strauss, who writes a column for the Washington Post called “The Answer Sheet,” points to another change that, like the removal of Thomas Jefferson, was reversed at the last moment (although, as Strauss noted, the fact it was ever proposed at all is pretty disturbing): the replacement of “the slave trade” with “Atlantic triangular trade.” In another one of her columns written before the Republicans on the board backed down, Strauss singled this one out as “the most egregious twist of history” in the new standards:

There are a lot more changes, but I think we have found the most egregious, even insidious proposal: Calling the country’s slave trade the “Atlantic triangular trade.” That refers to the trade system that included the American colonies, Europe and Africa, which, if drawn on a map with arrows from place to place, certainly looks like a triangle. The proposal is correct on the geometric merits.

On historical and moral merits, however, it fails miserably. Trying to whitewash the country’s ugly past is itself ugly, and dangerous.

The Christian Science Monitor quotes the Dallas Morning News:

“… high school students will have to learn about leading conservative groups from the 1980s and 1990s in U.S. history – but not about liberal or minority rights groups that are identified as such. Board members also gave a thumbs down to requiring history teachers and textbooks to provide coverage on the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy while the late President Ronald Reagan was elevated to more prominent coverage in the curriculum. In addition, the requirements place Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a more positive light in U.S. history despite the view of most historians who condemn the late Republican senator’s tactics and his view that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Communists in the 1950s.”

Regarding the elevation of McCarthy, the rewritten standard says:

(B) describe how the extent and danger of Soviet agent infiltration of the U.S.
government as revealed in Alger Hiss’ guilt and confirmed later by the Venona
Papers, McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the
arms race, and the space race affected/reflected Cold War tensions.

The same standard before being rewritten was worded as follows:

(B) describe how McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC), the arms race, and the space race increased Cold War tensions and how
the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist
infiltration in U.S. government.

Both versions of this standard make claims for the Venona Papers that are, at best, misleading — but the rewritten version is even more deceptive. The fact is that, although the Venona Papers (scanned copies of Soviet intelligence transmissions that were decoded by the United States and Britain during and after World War II) did provide evidence of and information about Soviet espionage activities in this country (such as the Los Alamos spy ring), the decrypted messages are far from the vindication for McCarthyism that the Texas curriculum standard makes them out to be (emphasis in original):

Among the most knowledgable experts on the Venona project is Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University. Prof. Klehr traveled in 1992 to the former Soviet Union, where he got access to Soviet spy archives. He also studied the Venona cables after the U.S. government declassified them in the 1990s. With John Earl Haynes, Prof. Klehr co-authored Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, published in 1999 by Yale University.

In short, when it comes to Soviet espionage in America, the Venona project and Joseph McCarthy, Prof. Klehr has the credentials to show that he knows what he’s talking about. In fact, he is very critical of those who still deny the extent of that espionage or downplay its significance.

But he isn’t buying efforts to rehabilitate McCarthy’s image. Prof. Klehr told an audience at a 2005 conference that McCarthy may have been right about “some of the larger issues” — such as, that there actually were communist spies in America — but that he was recklessly wrong on much else, especially the details:

[V]irtually none of the people that McCarthy claimed or alleged were Soviet agents turn up in Venona. He did identify a few small fry who we now know were spies but only a few. And there is little evidence that those he fingered were among the unidentified spies of Venona. Many of his claims were wildly inaccurate; his charges filled with errors of fact, misjudgments of organizations and innuendoes disguised as evidence. He failed to recognize or understand the differences among genuine liberals, fellow-traveling liberals, Communist dupes, Communists and spies — distinctions that were important to make. The new information from Russian and American archives does not vindicate McCarthy. He remains a demagogue, whose wild charges actually made the fight against Communist subversion more difficult. Like Gresham’s Law, McCarthy’s allegations marginalized the accurate claims. Because his facts were so often wrong, real spies were able to hide behind the cover of being one of his victims and even persuade well-meaning but naïve people that the whole anti-communist cause was based on inaccuracies and hysteria. …

Matthew Yglesias tries to figure out why conservatives (and, I might add, libertarians) don’t seem to be that upset about the fact that one state can dictate curriculum standards for the entire nation.