Sunday, March 14, 2010

Insanity at the Texas School Board

Last month I posted on the Texas school board and its attempt to turn history textbooks into conservative Christian propaganda tools. There is more on this popping into the news. It is somewhat heartening to see that the insanity is not just from the right. The Democrats on the board, all minorities, wanted to insist that Tejanos killed at the Alamo be listed by name. They also wanted to insist that hip-hop in addition to rock and roll be listed as an important cultural achievement. To be clear I do not support history being taught exclusively as a laundry list of dead white males. When talking about the Alamo (in of itself more important as a cultural symbol than as a historical event) it is worthwhile to point out that not everyone inside was a WASP. That does not mean that we should be memorizing names. There are more important names from nineteenth-century American history to memorize. A parallel example would be the case of Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre. Yes, he was a black man and he was killed. I would certainly encourage teachers doing the Boston Massacre to bring up Attucks and ask students to consider what having a black man listed among the dead tells us about Boston society of 1770. Should Attucks be a name that students should make the effort to memorize? No.

Of course, since this board has a 10-5 Republican majority, the important insanity to consider comes from them. The board has felt the need to remove Thomas Jefferson from the question: "Explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present." The question now reads: "Explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone." First off, I should acknowledge that I was not familiar with Blackstone and had to look him up. He was an eighteenth-century English legal scholar. Let us acknowledge the purpose of this change. The board wants students to understand the religious element in the rise of modernity. I certainly support this, but what the board is doing is making the entire question meaningless.

The question, around which I teach modern history, both Jewish and general European, is how our secular society came about. Granted this very question is not as simple as most people assume; medieval society was not nearly as religious as popularly portrayed and modern society is not nearly as secular. That being said, once we get through defining what we mean by religious and secular, we are still faced with how we moved from the more religious society of the Middle Ages to our more secular society. As readers of this blog already know, this story is certainly much more complex and interesting than people all of a sudden becoming "rational" and rejecting "religious" superstition. While it is important to talk about the religious motivations of thinkers like John Locke, we should not be side-stepping modern secularism. Like him or hate him, Jefferson stands at the center of this modern divide, particularly within the American context. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and coined the term "wall separating Church and State."

Sticking Thomas Aquinas into this negates the entire question of modernity. Yes, Thomas Aquinas was an important medieval political thinker, in addition to his theology, and his work continues to be relevant. That being said, if you are going to understand this modern world of ours, one of the first things you have to acknowledge is that there is a giant wall called the American and French Revolutions separating us from the Middle Ages. I would add that there is a second wall of the early modern Reformation. John Calvin is one more thing that separates us from Aquinas; he is also, though, separated from us by the same Enlightenment revolutions that separate us from the Middle Ages. As such, while deserving of his own question about the role of theocracy and democracy, he should not be part of the modern political thinkers.

Again I challenge readers; either you are in favor of ideological government boards or you are in favor of the teaching of history. The only way that history or any other subject can hope to be taught in a responsible manner is if government is out of education.


James Pate said...

I too am disturbed by this, Izgad, and I'm a person still stewing with bitterness over how liberal my textbooks were in school! I think schools should teach various sides of issues. Will that always be done neutrally? No. But it will be better than the ideological indoctrination that both Left and Right are supporting on this board.

Vox Populi said...

I don't see where it says that the names of the Tejanos have to be memorized. This Berlanga woman just wants the contribution of the Tejanos to be taught. Maybe by saying that Hispanics also fought at the Alamo. I don't think she's suggesting that kids be required to remember their individual names.

Izgad said...

"to require that history standards include by name the Tejanos who died in the fall of the Alamo"

Clearly the teacher has to point them out by name. For that to mean anything we have to assume that the students will have to, in turn, know them by name.

Clarissa said...

After we perused a variety of historical sources that discuss the same events in wildly diverging ways, my students cried out in desperation, 'Are there any books on history that just tell the facts without bringing ideology into the mix?' Obviously, such a textbook cannot possibly exist.

To have an objective reading of history, it isn't the government you need to remove from the process. It's human beings. :-)

Izgad said...

Yes human beings are a problem. That is why we have the historical method, which is not biased. For this reason my class is always less about history and more about method. There is little to be gained in of itself for my students to know that the Spartans fought at Thermopylae, but it can do them a world of good to learn how to critically read someone like Herodotus and apply the same tactics to journalists and politicians.