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How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us

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The final product the board came up with called for a curriculum that would make sure that students studying economic issues of the late nineteenth century would not forget “the cattle industry boom” and that when they turned to social issues like labor, growth of the cities, and problems of immigrants they also take time to dwell on “the philanthropy of industrialists.” When it came to the Middle Ages, the board appeared to be down on any mention of the Crusades, an enterprise that tends to reflect badly on the Christian side of Christian–Islamic conflict. And when they got to the cold war era, the board wanted to be sure students would be able to “explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.” Later, they were supposed to study “Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents.” And that appeared to be pretty much all young people in Texas were going to be required to know about Arab nations and the world’s second-largest religion.

For the most part, however, the board seemed determined just to sprinkle stuff its members liked hither and yon, and eliminate words they found objectionable in favor of more appealing ones. Reading through the deletions and additions, it becomes clear that a majority of board members hated the word “democratic,” for which they consistently substituted “constitutional republic.” They also really disliked “capitalism” (see rather: “free enterprise system”) and “natural law” (“laws of nature and nature’s God”).

Study of the first part of the twentieth century should include not only the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt but also Sanford B. Dole, a Hawaiian lawyer and son of missionaries. When teachers get to Clarence Darrow, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh, they’d also better not forget Glenn Curtiss, who broke early motorcycle speed records. For the modern era, they needed to study “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s,” including Equal Rights Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association. And when students learn how to describe the impact of cultural movements like “Tin Pan Alley, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, rock and roll,” the board demanded that they also look into “country and western music.”

That last one actually seems totally fair.

The social studies curriculum was perhaps the last hurrah for the extreme agenda that Don McLeroy, the anti-evolution dentist, had championed. When the discussions began, he could frequently rally a majority on the fifteen-member panel, with the consistent support of people like Cynthia Dunbar, who once wrote that sending children to public schools was like “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” (She also once called Barack Obama a terrorist sympathizer.) In 2011, Dunbar announced her retirement; she had been commuting between Texas and Virginia, where she taught at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law. After McLeroy himself lost a Republican primary to a candidate who believes in evolution, Barbara Cargill, his successor as board chair, expressed concern that she was left with only “six true conservative Christians on the board.”

“Readable? I’ve never heard a discussion of that”

These days the Texas board is far less powerful than in its heyday. But in a way, it’s more influential than ever.

The state legislature has diluted the board’s ability to control what books local districts pick. And the expanding Web-based curricula make it easier for publishers to work around the preferences of any one state, no matter how big. But students all around the country will be feeling the effect of Texas on their textbooks for years, if not generations. That’s because the school board’s most important contribution has not been to make textbooks inaccurate. It’s been to help make them unreadable.

“Readable? I’ve never heard a discussion of that,” said Julie McGee.

The typical school textbook is composed of a general narrative sprinkled liberally with “boxes”—sidebars presenting the biographies of prominent individuals, and highlighting particular trends, social issues, or historical events. As the textbook wars mounted, those boxes multiplied like gerbils. It’s the ideal place to stash the guy who broke the motorcycle speed record, or the cattle boom, or, perhaps, the gold standard. (It’s also where, in bows to gender and racial equality, mini-biographies of prominent women and minorities can be floated.) In an era of computerized publishing, changing the boxes is easy. The problem comes when the publisher has to change the narrative, something many committees of experts may have labored over at the cost of millions of dollars.

All the bickering and pressuring over the years has caused publishers to shy away from using the kind of clear, lively language that might raise hackles in one corner or another. The more writers were constrained by confusing demands and conflicting requests, the more they produced unreadable mush. Texas, you may not be surprised to hear, has been particularly good at making things mushy. In 2011, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, issued an evaluation of US history standards for public schools. The institute was a longtime critic of curricula that insisted that representatives of women and minorities be included in all parts of American history. But the authors, Sheldon Stern and Jeremy Stern, really hated what the Texas board had done. Besides incorporating “all the familiar politically correct group categories,” the authors said,

the document distorts or suppresses less triumphal or more nuanced aspects of our past that the Board found politically unacceptable (slavery and segregation are all but ignored, while religious influences are grossly exaggerated). The resulting fusion is a confusing, unteachable hodgepodge.

All around the country, teachers and students are left to make their way through murky generalities as they struggle through the swamps of boxes and lists. “Maybe the most striking thing about current history textbooks is that they have lost a controlling narrative,” wrote historian Russell Shorto.

And that’s the legacy. Texas certainly didn’t single-handedly mess up American textbooks, but its size, its purchasing heft, and the pickiness of the school board’s endless demands—not to mention the board’s overall craziness—certainly made it the trend leader. Texas has never managed to get evolution out of American science textbooks. It’s been far more successful in helping to make evolution—and history, and everything else—seem boring.

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