June 6, 2012

In Texas, you can make history … by changing it


Larry Kolvoord/Austin American-Statesman/AP

According to a New York Times journalist, America’s school children have been reading textbooks catering mostly to Texan sensibilities for decades.

Gail Collins in the New York Review of Books describes how Texas has been able to gain undue influence over the textbooks put into the hands of kids across the country.

Although there have been fights over curriculum content in many states, Texas is able to wield more clout than others for a variety of reasons. Per Collins,

“The difference is due to size—4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011…Texas originally acquired its power over the nation’s textbook supply because it paid 100 percent of the cost of all public school textbooks, as long as the books in question came from a very short list of board-approved options. The selection process “was grueling and tension-filled,” said Julie McGee, who worked at high levels in several publishing houses before her retirement. “If you didn’t get listed by the state, you got nothing.” On the other side of the coin, David Anderson, who once sold textbooks in the state, said that if a book made the list, even a fairly mediocre salesperson could count on doing pretty well. The books on the Texas list were likely to be mass-produced by the publisher in anticipation of those sales, so other states liked to buy them and take advantage of the economies of scale.”

In sum, for publishers the numbers were just too big to give up. As Collins writes, “as a market, the state was so big and influential that national publishers tended to gear their books toward whatever it wanted.”

And what it wanted was decided by a highly politicized School Board of Education, selected in elections where rich donors could back favorites.  Some members, such as Mel and Norma Gabler, can be thanked for the New Deal being axed from the American history timeline.

The article details too many incidents of craziness to mention, for example this choice bit from Don McLeroy, the Texas board chairman,

“The way I evaluate history textbooks is…I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

Although my favorite point of contention is the semantics — ”Democratic” replaces  ”constitutional republic”, “capitalism” with “natural law” or “laws of nature and nature’s God.”

New fronts in the history wars seem to open semi-regularly.  In Australia, the last front fought across the nations’ newspapers and universities was over Keith Windschuttle‘s book The White Australia Policy, where he claimed that said policy — which enforced immigration discrimination against Asian immigrants well into the 1970’s — was introduced for economic and nationalistic reasons and was not motivated primarily by race.

Windschuttle was denouncing “black armband” history, a concept illuminated by Australian historian Henry Reynolds, where “history should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian, … it should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation.”  This outlook seems to be specifically what the Texas school board dislikes, any suggestion that the United States is or has ever been anything but A-Ok.

Just so you know, if you are ever surrounded by a hoard of Texas school children, according to the Christian Science Monitor, in Texas high schools the slave trade is the “Atlantic triangular trade” and American “imperialism” is “expansionism”.


Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.