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Revisionist History Dept

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It takes serious revisionist thinking to believe that history has “vindicated” Joseph McCarthy, but that’s what some members of the State Board of Education contend. If they get their way, that’s how Texas schools will portray the late red-baiting U.S. Senator in social studies classes.

The 15-member board is rewriting the social studies curriculum. It’s a year-long process, and nothing will be final until next spring. So far, the seven Christian conservatives on the board have made clear they want to slip right-wing ideology into the standards, including re-imagining McCarthy.

The process began last spring, not long after the board finished its notorious fight over whether to teach kids the “weaknesses” of evolution. The board brought in experts to review the social studies curriculum and write draft versions of new standards, which will guide textbooks and lesson plans for Texas public schools. Board members can nominate any expert they like, and the ones appointed by the Christian conservative faction recommended removing references to African-American and Latino figures like Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall from some social-studies standards. One expert observed during a board meeting last spring that the curriculum contained an “overrepresentation of minorities.” According to the Christian conservative experts, Christianity was underrepresented. They recommended that the curriculum emphasize that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

In the end, the right-wing experts were outvoted by social studies teachers and mainstream academics on the curriculum-review teams. The teams finished the latest draft in October, and groups like the Texas Freedom Network were pleased with the results. Chavez and Marshall remained.

But the fight is just beginning. At its meeting in mid-November, the board voted to forbid their appointed experts from having any more input. That leaves the fate of social studies curriculum in the hands of the board. Its members have two chances to vote on curriculum changes, first at a board meeting Jan. 13 to Jan. 15, and again in mid-March.

Don McLeroy, the conservative board member from Bryan who last spring was deposed as chair, has provided a hint of what lies ahead. In late October, McLeroy sent his colleagues a note in which he wrote, “Read the latest on McCarthy—he was basically vindicated.” Other conservative members have agreed that recent research exonerates McCarthy, whose alarmist rhetoric in the 1950s led to a witch hunt for supposed Communists and Soviet spies.

The revisionists are referring to documents from Russian archives and American intelligence files showing there were, in fact, Soviet spies in America during the Cold War. Some conservatives have used these revelations to claim that McCarthy was right all along. Several prominent historians have tried to dispel that thinking, including Harvey Klehr, the Emory University historian who helped unearth older Soviet documents. He has said the presence of Soviet spies doesn’t validate the wild claims made by McCarthy, whom he has called a demagogue.

But testimonials from historians might not dissuade conservatives on the board. “The arguments don’t matter,” said Dan Quinn with the Texas Freedom Network. “The unfortunate thing is that the state board has become a body in which politics trumps education. If they have the votes, they do what they want, and it makes no difference what any expert or educator has to say about it.”

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.