Liberals and conservatives both object to new Texas textbooks

A panel of experts commissioned by a liberal advocacy group found passages that claimed segregated schools weren't all that terrible, while conservatives object to content in the textbooks that they say is anti-American and pro-Muslim.

Robert Harbison
Erin Mounts checks through textbooks at the University of California San Diego student bookstore.

From a California law that mandates textbooks mention the significance of President Obama’s election to a Virginia textbook that claims thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy to another that teaches creationism, textbooks have long been a source of controversy in America.

The latest example of textbook politics brings us to Texas, where a panel of experts commissioned by a liberal advocacy group found a batch of new history books that were up for review by the state’s Board of Education promoted pro-Christian religious and conservative political views.

Among the dozens of lessons the group highlighted as biased are passages suggesting segregated schools weren’t too bad, Affirmative Action recipients are un-American, taxes for social programs haven’t improved society, and that Moses inspired American democracy.

"In all fairness, it's clear that the publishers struggled with these flawed standards and still managed to do a good job in some areas," Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, which oversaw the review, in a statement. "On the other hand, a number of textbook passages essentially reflect the ideological beliefs of politicians on the state board rather than sound scholarship and factual history."

Some 104 new textbooks on subjects ranging from geography to history to US government are up for review by the Texas Board of Education, which must approve new textbooks for the state’s 5-plus million public school students in November. Texas textbooks have long been a source of contention, and this time both liberals and conservatives complained about perceived biases in the books, with some liberals crying foul over pro-Christian lessons and conservatives complaining of anti-American and pro-Muslim biases.

Among the complaints from both parties were passages that depicted minimum wage as a controversial legacy of the New Deal, marginalized or lionized Reagan, downplayed the achievements of Hispanics, presented pro-Israeli arguments on Middle East conflicts, incorrectly depicted jihad, and overemphasized the influence of the Ten Commandments and other Christian tenets on the American Revolution.

"We do our students a disservice when we scrub history clean of unpleasant truths," Jacqueline Jones, chairwoman of the University of Texas’ History Department, told the AP, "and when we present an inaccurate view of the past that promotes a simple-minded, ideologically driven point of view." 

Conservatives lashed back, saying textbooks shouldn’t be held to artificial standards of political correctness.

“I think our students deserve textbooks that are historically accurate and not politically correct," Amy Jo Baker, a retired history teacher and former social studies director for the San Antonio Independent School District, told the AP, adding that she wants textbooks that "reflect not America as the bad guy, but America as an exceptional nation.” 

While debates over Texas textbooks are nothing new, the fight highlights a larger political battle Texans are engaging in over academic standards and the shaping of statewide curricula. 

“[T]he controversy in Texas ... hints at rising tensions across the U.S. over academic standards, as conservatives have mobilized aggressively to shape what students learn in science, social studies and beyond,” reported Politico. “The Texas textbooks, most of them from major publishing houses, were written to align with instructional standards that the Board of Education approved back in 2010 – with the explicit intention of tugging social studies teaching to the right.”

According to Politico, new state standards require teachers to emphasize America’s Christian heritage and introduce students to conservative icons. 

“Texas has long been a battleground for these debates, as a bloc of conservative evangelicals on the Board of Education has moved aggressively to shape science and social studies instruction,” Politico reported.

Regardless of whether biases are perceived as liberal or conservative, one thing is clear: when ideology enters textbooks and distorts history, we do our students a disservice.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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