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Uncritical Thinking: Texas Conservatives Seek to Miseducate Students; Teachers Push Back

Michelle Chen

A student arrives at Douglass Elementary School in Houston, Texas, in September 2005.

Parents may assume their children spend their days in the classroom enriching their minds. But in Texas, the question families should be asking today is, Kids, what didn’t you learn in school today?”

Over the past several months, conservatives have seized control of the review process for state’s public school social studies standards, known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). The revisions reflect a worldview that many would find odious: unblinkingly pro-Christian, pro-capitalist and Eurocentric, deferential to the legacy of white imperialists, and dismissive of the contributions of radical activists.

As documented by the advocacy group Texas Freedom Network, the State Board of Education, dominated by a religious conservative majority, has tried to frame the study of American society in a conservative ideology that seems a generation or two behind reality. Progressive educators now bear the burden of adhering to anti-intellectual standards.

Following the contentious vote of approval last week, Ray McMurrey of the Corpus Christi branch of American Federation of Teachers told In These Times, The academic community is in shock and even the general population is having difficutly accepting this degree of change.” Noting that teachers had pushed their own ideas for revisions earlier, to little effect, he added:

the tenacity of the [State Board of Education] to force this curriculum into our public schools defies the logic of representative government. They are elected representatives. At what point do they owe it to the people of Texas to adhere to the will of the people?

The Miseducation of Texas

The controversy has drawn national criticism for the sharply conservative, sometimes bizarre standards proposed by social conservatives on the Board. These included minimizing the history of the separation of church and state; erasing the word capitalism” in favor of free enterprise system“ – presumably to make it harder to define or question an economic system that necessitates inequality; and trying to exclude pioneering activists like Justice Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, while elevating the role of confederacy figures like Jefferson Davis. Even Thomas Jefferson, no progressive luminary by today’s standards, was nearly kicked off his pedestal in an effort to downplay the significance of the Enlightenment.

Displaying the same myopia that pervaded last year’s textbook battle over science TEKS, the Board’s culture warriors also moved to scrub out discussion of gender and sexuality, as well as (betraying the blowhard brigade’s patent unhipness) a reference to hip hop in the survey of American culture.

Oh, and remember kids, America is not a representative democracy” but rather, a constitutional republic,” lest our youth start getting some kooky ideas about having a say in how they’re governed.

Throughout the process, there was tense deliberation and some amendments to the TEKS template, but the right ultimately emerged victorious, and progressive educators across the state are fuming. The leading teachers’ organizations, Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) and the Texas AFT, have blasted the entire review process. On May 19, Dr. Paul Henley of the TSTA testified before the Board:

You have let your own political viewpoints and prejudices create the appearance – if not the reality – that the work on setting new social studies standards was a no-holds-barred competition to impose political dogma on the public school classrooms, not a process designed to build consensus on a strong curriculum for our young people.

Teachers Walk the Line

It’s now up to the state legislature to appropriate funds to implement the standards, and to the educators to implement a curriculum that many believe runs counter to the experiences and history of their communities. McMurrey is unsure how the new standards will play out in the classroom:

The reality is that quality social studies teachers believe these new standards to be a politically generated farce. Most teachers, of course, will have to present the standards as required by law. However, what is emphasized and how it is covered is left to teacher discretion. Truthfully, teaching social studies should foster ctical thinking skills and cover a diverse body of thought and ideas, so students may reach their own ideological positions.

In McMurrey’s view, a more democratic review process would “[l]et the teachers, historians and scholars lead the discussion,” and would avoid over-politicization by making the guidelines broad enough that the academic community can reach a consensus, and individual teachers can fill in the blanks.”

Pointing to his own community as an instructive example of blindspots created by the textbook war — his wife is the daughter of migrant workers, he a sixth generation Texan — McMurrey fears social studies education is rolling backwards in history. Trying to understand the rational behind excluding the significant struggles and accomplishments by people of color takes us back to the teaching history before the civil rights movement,” he said.

Meanwhile, writes Kathy Miller of Texas Freedom Network, the state has failed to pass legislation to give teachers control over what children are required to study.

New Culture Wars

Most of the roughly 4.7 million public school students in Texas are children of color, many of them plagued by high dropout rates and severely underfunded schools. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union anticipates that the state’s education crisis will only intensify under the regressive curriculum standards.

Clay Robison, spokesperson for the TSTA, told In These Times:

Hispanics and African American students are a majority of public school enrollment. Those students will find much of the curriculum standards culturally irrelevant. And they are, because they were written by Anglo, conservative Republicans… who are trying to ignore the changing face of Texas.

Imagine if those kids knew how their lesson plans became vehicles for right-wing ideology, designed to whitewash the impacts of institutional racism in American history and inflate the benefits” of free enterprise.”

Lucky for the state’s conservative elite, children will probably never learn that back story, just as the right-wing Board members have yet to learn the lessons of America’s troubled history of racial and class conflict. Now Texas teachers can only hope to hold the line against the reactionaries as the minds of future generations are strangled by a rewriting of the past.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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