November 24, 2014

Texas State Board of Education approves social studies textbooks, doesn’t really know what’s in them (but it’s probably stuff about how Moses was awesome)

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Or do, if you're a member of the Texas State Board of Education.

Or do, if you’re a member of the Texas State Board of Education.

Let’s begin with a short quiz:

Do you like power?

Do you also like ignorance?

Do you enjoy imposing your arbitrary wishes and paranoid half-opinions on the population of the nation’s second-largest state?

Do you worry that what plagues this country is not growing inequality (inequality is a fair reward for hard work), political stagnation (it’s Obummer’s fault), or the imminent threat of climate change (unproven and, if proven, false), but the under-emphasis on the evils of communism and the glories of Ronald Reagan in your state’s history textbooks?

If you answered yes to all of the questions above, then congratulations! You may just have what it takes to be a Republican member of the Texas State Board of Education. Indeed, you may already be a Republican member of the Texas State Board of Education, in which case, congratulations again! Because last Friday, you won, the Democratic members of the board lost, and Texas’s schoolchildren braced themselves for exposure to another dose of misinformation.

What happened last Friday? The fifteen-member board voted to approve eighty-nine history and social studies textbooks and electronic lessons for use in Texas’s many classrooms. The vote broke down along party lines—all five Democrats voted against approval, and all ten Republicans were in support. The board also voted down six books and classroom tools published by WorldView Software. And one publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, withdrew one of its textbooks from consideration.

All of which sounds more or less like democracy in action, but as many of Texas’s new textbooks won’t tell you, context is key. First, the board itself is radically undemocratic. As MobyLives reported in 2012, the board is deeply politicized, and its influence is vast. That year, the great Gail Collins wrote about the board for the New York Review of Books:

When it comes to meddling with school textbooks, Texas is both similar to other states and totally different. It’s hardly the only one that likes to fiddle around with the material its kids study in class. The difference is due to size—4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011—and the peculiarities of its system of government, in which the State Board of Education is selected in elections that are practically devoid of voters, and wealthy donors can chip in unlimited amounts of money to help their favorites win.

Since Collins’s piece was published, the board’s influence has waned. (School districts can now buy books without board approval, and the increasing use of digital readers makes it easier for publishers to customize their texts, which means that other states can now influence the design of their own textbooks, instead of taking their cues from Texas.) But its idiosyncrasies, which Collins describes in marveloushorrifying detail, have remained as numerous as ever.

In 2010, we reported on the extraordinarily controversial curriculum standards adopted by Texas that same year. The standards, called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Standards, or TEKS, called for exactly the kinds of things you would expect them to call for—more paeans to the free enterprise system, more discussion of Moses’s influence on the Founding Fathers, as little about the New Deal as possible. The social studies textbooks endorsed on Friday are the first generation of books to confirm to TEKS.

Friday’s vote came three days after a hearing on Tuesday, during which the board heard nearly four hours of public comment. Publishers then had to make hundreds of changes to their books and materials before Friday’s meeting, even though the board had been assessing the books for months. So did the board actually read through the books that it approved? According to the Austin American-Statesman . . . no:

Publishers submitted hundreds of changes since the public hearing on Tuesday, including hundreds of pages alone on Thursday, meaning a complete picture of what had and hadn’t been changed was elusive during the meeting. Some members, including Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, made comments that suggested they had reviewed everything but most members who spoke said they had not.

Those groups and individuals who criticized the textbooks during the Tuesday hearing, in turn, also said they were not entirely sure whether any of the changes they requested had been made.

Okay then! And what about WorldView’s books, which the board turned down?

A WorldView spokesman described the vote as “arbitrary and capricious,” noting that the board rejected all of its materials even though only one world history book had been criticized.

Spokesman Jerry Kleinstein said corrections the publisher sent in earlier this month were never posted to the website and that ones it sent in Thursday were not posted until later in the day, after a 5 p.m. cutoff the board decided on Friday.

Comforting!

All of these textbooks are probably in better shape than they were a few months ago, when they were found to include negative stereotypes about Muslims, climate change denialism, and “offensive cartoons comparing beneficiaries of affirmative action to space aliens.” But given the haste with which the changes were made—and the tortured prose that accompanies any equally tortured compromise between fact and rhetoric—the real losers are, as usual, the students.

Still, as we’re only a few days away from Thanksgiving, we should try to find something in this sad story of corruption, greed, and stupidity for which we can give thanks. What might that be? I’d suggest that on Thursday, when you’re gathered with your family, you should give thanks for the fact that dentist Don McElroy is no longer on the Texas board. The board may not be a collection of the best and the brightest, but at least it no longer counts as one of its members the man who told Washington Monthly the following:

The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.

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