The Texas education standards controversy

I had meant to write at length on this myself, but this article from the New York Times Magazine covers much of what I wanted to say quite brilliantly. It should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the state of education in the U.S.

For those of you unacquainted with the controversy, you’re probably aware of the strong influence Texas has on what gets taught in public schools nationally – well, public and quite a few private as well. Texas was an innovator and early leader in setting statewide educational standards, and as the second largest textbook market in the nation, what Texas decides is important and necessary to be taught is likely to shape the textbooks educational publishers will offer to the rest of the nation.

Over the past few years, the Texas State Board of Education has increasingly come under the control of conservative activists who are bent on politicizing education. As the article points out, one of the core focuses, and what seems to be the major force driving the agenda of this group, is to rewrite American history to highlight what Christian fundamentalists insist on is the Christian origin of the nation. Although the group has made only a little headway in rewriting American religious history precisely, preferring at this point to focus on promoting explicitly conservative interpretations of isolated historical incidents and shifting the history’s personnel around (removing Ted Kennedy from the history curriculum, and adding Phyllis Shafly, e.g..), the re-imagining of America as a Christian nation remain a rhetorical incitement to their project as well as the intended effect of their changes.

As the article points out, the group has some valid points. The strong interpretation of the separation of church and state over the twentieth century has introduced what the current Supreme Court might very well term a “chilling effect” on the instruction of the role of religion in American history. What should be viewed as a central, organic, and integral component of the lives of the European settlers in North America and the consequences of that settlement emerges instead as piecemeal and often incoherent. Are any schoolchildren taught about the First and Second Great Awakening? The first is important to an understanding of the American Revolution; the second to the broad experience of American Protestantism but democracy, capitalism, and secularism as well (one of the beautiful, untold ironies of American history is how the Second Great Awakening generously produced not only evangelical Christianity but also the contemporary forms of liberal secularism, and not as a reaction either).

But alongside the efforts of the conservative contingent of the board to reintroduce the history of American Christianity into the history of America, there are also examples of selective focus, like putting new emphasis on the Mayflower Compact as setting out a specific Christian agenda for the Puritan settlers, neglecting that the initial colonies arose out of a variety of competing and often exclusive agendas, notably the mercantile proto-capitalism of the Virginia Company. And then, of course, there is the absolute ahistorical hogwash, that seems to come from that unique blindness that first obliterates inconvenient facts and then manufactures new ones to fill the resulting vacuum.

This the familiar historical bullshit that proclaims the Founding Fathers to be Christians who designed the new American nation to be from start to second coming a Christian nation. Do I need even need to rehearse this? The Founding Fathers were Christian in the sense that they were white descendants of Northern Europeans who were not Jews – that is how they understood and used the word. Their own religious beliefs and practices were various to a man, and few bear much resemblance to the beliefs and practices we currently use the term Christian to mean. Few of them believed in the divinity of Christ; few of them believed in the exclusive claim of Christian revelation to the truth. Most of them were deeply suspect of revelation and its claims entirely.

(That these men were educated elites whose own experiences and attitudes could be quite different from the masses whose passions helped fuel the Revolution and the ensuing emergence of the first modern republic should be evident. But let’s not forget the importance of Enlightenment secular thought to American intellectual culture throughout class strata. Washington read his soldiers in Valley Forge from The American Crisis by Thomas Paine, the Christopher Hitchens of the eighteenth century, to inspire them for the Christmas Day engagement with the British soldiers in Trenton that was to change the course of the war to the Americans’ favor.)

The Constitution is a wholly secular document, written to help shape the development of a strong federal government that in part would protect and assure that persons could follow the dictates of individual conscience, no matter what that might be (and the framers were aware and quite explicitly state in their correspondence – especially Jefferson – that the Constitution was to favor no religion over any other, including Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam). Those aspects of the First Amendment that specifically treat religion, the disestablishment clause and the freedom clause, developed out of joint efforts by secularists like Madison and Jefferson and religious dissenters like Quakers and Baptists to protect believers, dissenters, non-believers, and religion itself from what they viewed as potential tyranny of allowing the state to claim any authority from or involvement in religious practice.

And any anyone who believes that American jurisprudence has any relationship to the Ten Commandments is a fool who has either no knowledge of the law or of the commandments, or, mostly likely, both.

The debate is important: 1) the historical record is quite clear that America was founded as the world’s first secular nation, and we need to adhere to the truth where we have it, painful and inconvenient as it may be; and 2) our democracy and our freedoms cannot be ever fully extricated from our secularity: the three are mutually interdependent concepts, and are the consequence and the dream of a fully realized modernity.

I have much more to say on efforts to politicize education and on the hard-line conservative war on truth and reality, and I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity. This issue is important in and of itself, and as the article suggests, the controversy has brought about sufficient national scrutiny to mean that the political futures of the thugs attempting to divert education toward their partisan political agendas is less certain than before. Please, don’t lose sight of this.


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