Skip to main content

Hijacking History

Was America ordained by God to lead the world? Are our public school students taught enough about the African American and Hispanic experiences? Was Joseph McCarthy an American hero? The always controversial State Board of Education meets this week to take up such questions as it revises Texas' social studies standards.

In three grueling sessions last year, a nine-member curriculum committee appointed by members of the State Board of Education met to hammer out which version of American history that Texas high schoolers, and maybe high schoolers everywhere, will learn for the next decade.

On the committee were eight educators and one “citizen” (that’s how he was described on a published list of its members), and the latter could not have been more different from the others. Bill Ames had neither history or education credentials nor respect for fellow committee members who did. Indeed, the retired IBM executive and conservative gadfly believed they had been planted there in a conspiracy of “liberal groups” and unions who wanted to “hijack” U.S. history — or so he would later write in a three-part, 9,300-word rant, “The Left’s War on History,” that was published by the conservative web site Texas Insider.

When the committee took up McCarthyism, for instance, Ames argued that disgraced Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was actually an American hero. “The SBOE, noting the predictable leftist condemnation of ... McCarthy for his anti-communist activity, requested the inclusion of the Venona papers, which revealed that the U.S. government was in fact infiltrated by communists,” Ames later wrote.

The citizen was channeling his patron, Don McLeroy, the hyperconservative board member who appointed him to the curriculum committee. McLeroy, in six pages of hand-scrawled editing instructions to committee members, parroted Ames on McCarthyism: “Read the latest on McCarthy — He was basically vindicated.” However, in a brief interview last week, McLeroy — who was ousted as the SBOE’s chairman in July, when the Texas Senate refused to confirm his reappointment by Rick Perry — downplayed his interest in clearing McCarthy’s name. “He’s not really a hero in my book,” he said. “I just thought he was more accurate about the red threat than people thought. I’m not a historian on this stuff. I’m just a dentist from Bryan.”

The McCarthyism dustup was one of many strange episodes in the yearlong drafting of Texas high school social studies standards, which will once again occupy center stage beginning this week, as the SBOE takes up public comment and amendments. So far, much of the squabbling has involved the exclusion of particular historical figures, including the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, and labor leader Cesar Chavez. But beneath such spats lie far deeper ideological tussles, over disputed Biblical underpinnings of the nation’s founding; the notion of America as uniquely superior, even divinely ordained; and the proper context and credit in exploring the struggles of oppressed minority groups.

Following earlier clashes over curricula in other disciplines, the social studies debate will test whether the SBOE can cut through the fog of extremism and find a neutral mainstream. Though its appointees spent countless hours drafting the new standards, the board can toss or overhaul portions at any point, as it did with English standards in 2008 and science standards last year. And so a fifteen-member elected board dominated by social conservatives, few of them educators, will once again decide what will and won’t be taught in Texas public schools. Their influence will be magnified exponentially, as usual, because the content of textbooks in the lucrative Texas market drives what publishers peddle in other states.

 “They’ve got the votes,” said board member Pat Hardy, who is not part of the ruling faction. “You never know. Fasten your seat belt.”

Expert evangelists

The committee that included Ames is one of 16 different curriculum-writing committees appointed by SBOE members to rewrite the social studies standards. All committee members were nominated by board members, who could recommend committee assignments as well. The committee members were then assigned by Texas Education Agency staff, who sought to balance each committee with the appointees of different board members. Each committee was charged with tackling different subjects or grade levels. The draft standards they produced were then given to six “expert reviewers” who were each chosen by at least two SBOE members. The board considers the input of both the curriculum writers and the reviewers separately but ultimately makes the calls on final changes by majority vote.

Predictably, the American history standards have become the focal point of controversy within the larger realm of social studies, which includes everything from geography to psychology. “With the partisanship that has emerged in America right now, how you interpret the recent past becomes an ownership struggle: People want to control what is said about it,” said Jesus de la Teja, a history professor at Texas State University appointed as an expert reviewer by Rene Nunez and Mary Helen Berlanga, two other board members who are not part of the ruling faction.

The ambitions of some board members and their appointees extend well beyond the recent past. Two of the six expert reviewers are evangelists rather than educators or historians and have argued for extended and disputed explorations of Christianity’s role in the nation’s founding to be included in the curriculum. Separately, they have skewered the notion of devoting more study to racial and other minority groups.

One of the two evangelist expert reviewers is David Barton, the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and the founder of the Aledo-based ministry WallBuilders, a nationally known speaking-and-publishing outfit that preaches that the Founding Fathers never intended to separate church and state. Barton, appointed by conservative members Gail Lowe (who succeeded McLeroy as chair) and Ken Mercer, takes a coldly mathematical view of historical advances in minority rights. “Multiple locations in the TEKS (standards) even suggest that it is people from ‘racial, ethnic, and religious groups who ‘expand political rights in American society.’ This is an absolutely false premise,” he wrote in an 87-page review of the curriculum committee’s work. “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.” (Barton declined a request to be interviewed for this story.)

The other evangelist expert reviewer, Massachusetts-based preacher Peter Marshall, supports the “urgent necessity of recovering the original American vision, and the truth about our Christian heritage,” according to his website. Appointed by conservative members Barbara Cargill and Cynthia Dunbar, Marshall was the one who launched the assaults on the inclusion of Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez. (Marshall also declined to be interviewed.)

The choice of his fellow expert reviewers spoke to the ideological bent of some board members, said James Kracht, a geographer and associate dean at Texas A&M, chosen by board members Hardy and Bob Craig, who is also outside the majority faction. “You get some real lunacy in there when somebody’s arguing that Thurgood Marshall doesn’t belong in there but the inventor of the yo-yo does,” he said. Kracht was referring to two separate references in reviews Peter Marshall submitted to the SBOE — one saying Thurgood Marshall was “not a strong enough example” to be included, and another recommending: “Add to the list of inventors Pedro Flores (invented the yo-yo).”

McLeroy was unable to name his own expert reviewer, as he couldn’t find a second board member to agree with him on a choice, according to Debbie Ratcliffe, the spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, which often works with, but does not report to, the state school board. McLeroy wanted Allen Quist, a creationist Minnesota politician, author and teacher who, as a Minnesota state representative and in two losing campaigns for governor, railed against gay rights, pornography and abortion, which he compared to the holocaust in a 1980 book. Now running for Congress, Quist was captured on YouTube in a speech last month saying: "Our country is being destroyed. Every generation has had to fight the fight for freedom … Terrorism? Yes. But that’s not the big battle,” he said. “The big battle is in D.C. with the radicals. They aren’t liberals. They are radicals. Obama, Pelosi, Walz [Quist’s opponent] … They are destroying our country.”

Though McLeroy’s bid to appoint Quist failed to garner support — even on one of the most conservative public bodies in America — he could still count on Ames, operating on the curriculum committee level, to speak loudly on his behalf. At some point, Ames demanded to address every other committee taking up separate subjects and grade levels, Ratcliffe said, but was rebuffed.

“It’s not like (Ames) is some kind of super-appointee, although at times it seems like he thinks he is,” Ratcliffe said, “He sometimes seemed very angry. … He complained a lot there were ‘too many educators.’ But it was a curriculum committee, so that seemed natural.”

America the exceptional

In the U.S. history committee meetings, by several accounts and the record of edits in the draft standards, Ames lost nearly every battle he fought, refused to compromise, and generally irritated his fellow committee members. And yet his ideas may ultimately prevail when the like-minded members of the SBOE gather this week.

Ames, for instance, may have been speaking for the elected board’s majority when he tried to push through a standard on “American exceptionalism.” Depending on how it’s interpreted, exceptionalism can mean simply that the country, particularly its founders, did exceptional things. Or it can mean — in a definition endorsed by Ames in his treatise — that America is “not only unique but superior,” that its citizens are “a chosen people, divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment,” and that it is “not destined to rise and fall. Americans will escape ‘the laws of history’ which eventually cause the downfall of all great nations and empires.”

Ames failed to get such notions through the committee. “He believes we’re ordained by God to play this role. It’s like the modern version of Manifest Destiny, which gave us the conquering of the West, the slaughtering of the Indians and all that,” said Julio Noboa, a University of El Paso history professor who served alongside him on the history standards committee. “He wanted a nice whitewashed view of American history, with no pimples. We said no. Students need to understand there are problems within the capitalist system … Politicians aren’t going to give our rights to us on a silver platter. Democracy is evolutionary.”

The committee didn’t necessarily object to any mention of exceptionalism as theory — it was first coined by French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid-1800s — but members recoiled at Ames’ casting of it as unassailable doctrine. “Our take on that was that you can’t force your beliefs on students in a history book; it has to take a non-biased view,” said committee member Margaret Telford, a 34-year educator who currently teaches in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District.

The question of American superiority likely will come up again at next week’s SBOE meetings, Lowe said. “The state board members had given them (committee members) clear direction in the spring that we wanted that concept included, so it’s surprising they voted it down,” she said. “We don’t have to tell students what to think, but any educated person should have learned about American exceptionalism.”

Asked if she supports the same definition Ames had offered, Lowe said: “I don’t believe America is the chosen nation the same way (I believe) Israel is the chosen nation. I do believe we have a special and unique place in history. We are not one of many.”

“We’re Texans,” she continued. “We believe our state is better than all other states, too. Why wouldn’t we believe the same about our country?”

Lowe says she hopes to steer the social studies standards through with minimal controversy, but she may have a fight on her hands whether she wants one or not. A group of academics and activists plans to push the board to include more Hispanic history. And the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that monitors religious extremism, has mobilized a separate group of academics and clergy to advocate against a fundamentalist Christian interpretation of history.

SBOE member Berlanga, a Corpus Christi attorney, said she would “fight to the bitter end” for the inclusion of substantially more exploration of the Hispanic experience, both in Texas and nationally. “I read the history books our students currently use. There’s a few African Americans, but no Hispanics anywhere at all, from any era. Reading it, it was like we didn’t exist,” she said. “Just because we didn’t study something when we were children — because somebody didn’t do more research than they wanted to do — doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix it now.”

Lowe shares none of that urgency: “I think we’ve done a good job of including historical figures. I personally am not looking to remove names. But there seems to be a fair representation of minorities.”

McLeroy’s man

The editing marks in draft documents of the standards provide a fascinating record of the debate inside the history committee room. Every addition and deletion is marked — and every point of disagreement is chronicled, with the notation “MV,” for “multiple viewpoints.” In reality, however, almost every “MV” in the history draft stemmed from the lone dissenting view of Ames, according to two committee members.

Ames, who did not respond to requests for an interview, complained that there was “too much emphasis on multiculturalism” when the committee wanted to change “female” to “women and minority” in a standard discussing employment issues after World War II. In another case, he complained a standard didn’t include enough about “negative effects” of the New Deal. 

Yet when it came to Ronald Reagan, the standards didn’t include enough praise for Ames’ taste: He objected to the removal of a blanket statement saying Reagan “restored national confidence” and wanted to add “winning the Cold War.” Of a list of social and political leaders that includes “[Mexican-American surgeon and civil rights activist] Dr. Hector P. Garcia, Thurgood Marshall, [preacher] Billy Graham, [1964 GOP presidential candidate] Barry Goldwater, [conservative activist] Phyllis Schlafly, and [former first lady and current U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton,” Ames remarked: “Name selection appears more concerned with diversity than any significant accomplishment.”

In early October, after three committee sessions, McLeroy sent along his point-by-point editing instructions, often mimicking Ames. He wrote first: “Pay close attention to the expert reviewers, especially David Bartons [sic].” Then: “Pay attention to ‘… the never ending battle for truth justice and the American Way … Introduction to Superman.”  In a section on World History, he asked for a study of “Ancient Isreal — Abraham, Moses, Ten Commandments.” In another, he wrote: “CHRISTIANITY! Development!” He questioned another line: “decline of the Roman Catholic church? How many current Supreme court justices are Catholic?” For U.S. History, he wrote: “Add a standard that describes the Judeo-Christian influence on the founding documents.” 

He further instructed the committee members: “Listen very closely to Bill Ames; he speaks for a lot of Texas citizens.”

Noboa, the UTEP history professor, chuckled when asked about that last McLeroy comment: “Unfortunately, I think he may be right.”

Herding cats

In light of the spectacle that has attended past standards adoptions, some of the expert reviewers question whether the messy process shouldn’t be scrapped entirely. “The board really monkeyed around with the English standards” after committees of educators had spent months crafting them, said de la Teja, the Texas State history professor. “It injects a lot of politics. When you get down to it, it doesn’t give the experts in the field the ability to do what they’ve been trained to do and have experience in doing.”  Texas A&M's Kracht compared the standards adoption process to “trying to herd 40 cats in a blue norther.”

Yet for now, the board’s veto power over the yearlong, word-by-word grind by curriculum-writing committees remains in effect. That gave great comfort to Ames, who walked out of his committee experience anything but defeated. He wrote of the upcoming state board meeting: “Item-by-item, motions will be made and passed to accept the changes. Textbook publishers, bound by the standards, will publish pro-America textbooks that are used, not only in Texas, but also across the country. The process will be the history revisionists’ worst nightmare. How can one be so confident of the outcome?  Because the SBOE seems able to win every curriculum battle. The left always loses in Texas.”


The McLeroy Memo


Rewriting History


Who's Hot, Who's Not

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

Public education State government Education State agencies State Board of Education Texas Education Agency