A Texas mom shocked that her son’s textbook merely called African slaves “workers” is thrilled that publisher McGraw-Hill has promised revisions. But changing a single caption is hardly enough to combat what some educational experts call a wave of ideologically-fueled school standards that downplay the role of race and slavery in shaping America today.
Roni Dean-Burren was horrified when her son sent her a snapchat of his McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook, an edition created especially for Texas’ new state standards adopted in 2010. Opening up to a graphic titled “Patterns of Immigration,” he snapped a photo of the map’s caption. The caption reads:
The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.
Examining his book more closely, Ms. Dean-Burren realized that although European indentured servants are described as working for “little or no pay,” there was no further mention of black slaves; their presence is simply portrayed as part of “immigration.”
“Erasure is real y’all!!! Teach your children the truth!!!” she commented alongside a video of the textbook, which has already been viewed more than 1.6 million times on Facebook.
It certainly got McGraw-Hill’s attention. The publishing giant maintains that “This program addresses slavery in several world lessons and meets the learning objectives of the course,” but promised to clarify the caption’s language about slavery. (A full Table of Contents for this edition is not available online.)
For many historians and educators, however, the learning objectives themselves are the problem.
Texas has been held up as a prime example of many states’ abysmal social studies standards, earning a “D” in one review done by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, which awarded the nation 18 “F”s, 11 “D”s, 12 “C”s, and a single, shining “A”: South Carolina.
Citing students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Institute’s writers bemoaned that the US is creating a “generation of students who don’t understand or value our own nation’s history” by relying on overly ideological curricula, influenced by both the left and the right.
“Even as the left pushes stories of American perfidy, the right counters with triumphal accounts of American perfection,” the report says, arguing that either slant handicaps students’ ability to understand the world around them.
The criticism from a conservative organization may be particularly noteworthy, since the controversial standards gaining ground in Texas (and popping up in similar debates from Colorado to Virginia) are often pushed by Republican-dominated committees and school boards, particularly when it comes to interpretations of the Civil War.
Texas Board of Education member Patricia Hardy, a Republican, believes “States’ rights were the real issues behind the Civil War. Slavery was an after issue,” according to NPR – a view shared by 48 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, and held by more people under 30 than in any other age group.
Critics of the Texan standards say it’s also the view students are learning, despite most scholars’ conclusion that slavery was central to the Civil War, according to the Washington Post.
The gaps don’t stop there: as the Post reports, social studies classes in Texas today barely cover racial segregation, including Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, defend the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, and portray the United Nations as a threat to national sovereignty. Moreover, the Fordham Institute lambasted board members for ignoring the separation of church and state and being “determined to inject their personal religious beliefs into history education.”
Former US Secretary of Education and Houston Superintendent Rod Paige argued against adopting the new standards, citing their political bent and thin coverage of race-related issues.
“We may not like our history, but it’s history, and it’s important to us today,” he told the Board.