Skip to main content

The American History Wars

As the SBOE grinded through testimony on Wednesday over its controversial social studies standards, much of the debate teetered on two basic fulcrums: teaching vs. indoctrination and patriotism vs. realism.

About 130 people signed up to address the State Board of Education about its social studies standards in a marathon meeting in January.

As the State Board of Education grinded through testimony on Wednesday over its controversial social studies standards, much of the debate teetered on two basic fulcrums: teaching vs. indoctrination and patriotism vs. realism.

Scores of speakers, many affiliated with political organizations, ran complex issues of race and religion largely through those two filters for hours. Both debates came to a fine point with the testimony of Janie Brittain, a Garland mom and education activist who argued for a firmly pro-America bent in history books and for the explicit exclusion of Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, on the grounds that she is a democratic socialist. 

“We need to be teaching, in our schools, our form of government versus socialism, because it’s the difference between tyranny and freedom,” Brittain said, calling America “the last, best hope on earth.”

Board member Mavis Knight, of Dallas, quizzed Brittain: “What is your definition of indoctrination?”

A philosophy of teaching a specific way of thinking, without giving alternative arguments, Brittain answered.

“So you’re saying we should indoctrinate students about the founders of our country” and exclude Huerta from the curriculum because of her leftist views?

Brittain shot back: “Are you saying our government and socialism are equivalent?”

“No … I’m saying you can look at the benefits and dangers” of both systems, Knight replied.

“If you want to say we’re indoctrinating, then yes, we want to indoctrinate students in the American form of government,” Brittain said.

“They wanted to insert Bernie Madoff”

Such exchanges underscored the inherently political nature of deciding which leaders of and events in American history should be taught in a state as diverse as Texas. The task will grow even more politicized today, as board members, after considering reams of input collected over a year’s time, take votes on amendments to the curriculum. The social studies standards — on which textbooks and tests for about 4.7 million students will be based — include geography, economics and psychology as well as history, which has been the focus of public controversy.

On Wednesday, many speakers urged the board to resist overhauling the current drafts and to avoid injecting naively patriotic or overtly Christian interpretations of national affairs that have been recommended by some board-appointed “expert reviewers.” Two of the six reviewers, who submitted input separately from the curriculum committees, were David Barton and Peter Marshall, both evangelists.

Patrick Burkhart, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M, commented that Barton’s book The Myth of Separation, in which the author argues the founders never intended to separate church and state, “looms over the social studies standards.”

“I have a vested interest in not seeing the board put on ideological or religious blinders. I want my students to be as ready as they can to understand contradictory and nuanced views of how the world actually exists,” Burkhart said. “I would caution the board against putting too much stock in any single viewpoint, like that of David Barton.”

Don McLeroy, of Bryan, a conservative member in the board’s majority faction, sought to cut through Burkhart’s nuance with a bottom-line question: “Would you rate the United States as a net plus or a net minus in world affairs and history?”

“Net plus, for sure,” the professor answered, without hesitation.

For every speaker who argued against an uncritical view of American history, another argued the nation’s future depended on teaching students the values underpinning its democracy — and on celebrating accomplishments rather than dwelling on failures. The negative-versus-positive debate overshadowed the more delicate questions of whether students should be taught the theory of “American exceptionalism” – and, if so, in what context — and to explore America’s racial history and its Hispanic and African-American leaders.

George Skaggs, who cited no affiliation, criticized what he called an attempt to give students a “jaundiced” view of their own country. “American exceptionalism is not a statement of arrogance or superiority, but rather that American offers freedom and prosperity to all citizens … and its efforts to free oppressed people around the world.”

Yet, he said, in the U.S. history portion of the standards, “exceptionalism has been replaced with a very different word — imperialism. The intent here is to attach some kind of negative connotation to America’s actions on the world stage.”

Bill Ames, a conservative gadfly appointed by McLeroy to serve on a U.S. history curriculum committee, said in an interview that his fellow committee members, who outvoted him repeatedly, insisted on a leftist and negative view of history.

“They wanted to insert Bernie Madoff” into a section on American entrepreneurs, Ames said. “That’s an effort to denigrate capitalism.”

Who’s the true patriot?

While Hispanic advocates packed the committee room, demanding inclusion of historical figures of their race, others decried multiculturalism as ultimately harmful to unifying the nation.

“Learning about different cultures in-depth should be secondary,” said Donna Starnes, a fan of the Tea Party movement from Dallas, who added historical figures shouldn’t be selected for reasons of race and gender. “We should inspire children with what is exceptional and unique about our government.”

Starnes came in for a grilling from Knight. “Give me an example of people listed (in the standards) based on their race or ethnicity and not their accomplishments, and give me the standard you are using for accomplishment?” she asked. Starnes declined to answer.

Julio Noboa, a professor from the University of Texas-El Paso and a member of the board-appointed committee to write the history standards, was the only speaker to directly criticize the theory of exceptionalism, at least as described by many speakers.

Noboa listened as earlier speakers argued America’s unique place in the world owes in part to the fact it has never taken land by force, and has used war only to liberate other countries from despots.

Noboa counter-argued: America has indeed taken land in imperialistic ventures: “Ask the Indians, ask the Mexicans, ask the Hawaiians.” And it has unseated democratically elected governments in Latin America, both in overt and covert actions, to profit American corporations. He listed off Guatamala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1963, and Chile in 1963.

His intent, he said in an interview after addressing the board, was not to trash America to Texas students.

“I love America no less than the American exceptionalists,” he said. “I love her despite her warts and scars. They love an imaginary, whitewashed America. So who’s the true patriot?”

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