State Board of Education Hears Public Testimony About Social Studies Standards

Texas SBOE members argue with speakers who criticize their religious and political views.
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Chairman Gail Lowe begins the meeting shortly after 9:00 a.m.  She says that 206 people registered for public testimony, so the SBOE will be listening to testimony all day and long into the evening if all are heard, which will be unlikely. The day of public testimony gives the social studies standards revision process a thin veneer of democracy despite the fact that the radical right Republican majority members have already made up their minds to revise the standards in a way that promotes their Christian faith and their view that Christianity was the principal influence on the history of the founding of the United States. During January and March these members already made dozens of revisions to the expert work group-written standards that changed the meaning and intent of the social studies standards, especially the history and government standards, in ways that reflect their political, religious, and ideological views. They have been heavily criticized by many Texas university history professors and curriculum experts for the changes they have made (see previous columns and many news reports). You can find the list of speakers and the currently-revised social studies standards at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=3643. A compilation of essays and reviews about the social studies standards and their revision process by Texas university humanities professors can be found at http://sensiblehistory.blogspot.com/p/analysis.html. I have compiled all the separate essays plus a few extra into a single PDF file at http://texscience.org/pdf/ScholarsAssessProposedTexasSocialStudiesStandards-2010May.pdf.

The first public testimony is from the Rev. Stephen Brown of Fairpark Bible Fellowship, who thanks the State Board of Education (SBOE) for including information “within the Christian frame” in the social studies standards. He is wearing his clerical garb during his testimony. He read quotes from Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin about how religion is necessary for our country to succeed, ignoring the fact that these three Founders were certainly religious but not Christians. Brown is happy the SBOE is including information about the Christian principles upon which our country was founded “within the Judeo-Christian frame.” He says our rights our sourced in God (“Him”), not in Man.

Lawrence Allen, the only non-Christian SBOE member (Lawrence is a Moslem), questions Brown about other faiths, but Brown says that–even though we all recognize one God–including anything other than Christianity would be wrong because our country was founded on the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, not on other principles. To another question, Rev. Brown says the social studies standards will have “an impact on the psyche of our students” so they are very important. To another question says “we need to highlight who we are as a people,” and “our Christian frame has pushed back against the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers.” He neglects to recognize that the Klan is a Christian organization who believes they are promoting Christian principles. Lawrence Allen asks Rev. Brown if he believes that people can change when they read something (such as social studies books). Brown responds that “knowledge influences action and behavior.”

The second speaker, Rod Paige, is the former U. S. Secretary of Education and Superintendent of Houston ISD. Paige says that history should be presented accurately and truthfully. He asks that the SBOE should include more about the history of slavery in the U.S. and not attempt to bias the social studies standards. He says the SBOE should rely on respected and legitimate scholars to decide what standards should be included, and not allow personal ideologies to guide what the SBOE members include in the social studies standards. Rene Nunez asks if how the Texas Rangers badly treated the Mexican-Americans in Texas should be included. Paige answers affirmatively: we should include information that we might want to forget because it reflects badly on national culture. Lawrence Allen asks Paige how we should approach writing standards. Paige replies that standards should not be so specific that they detail precisely what teachers should teach, but should reflect the desires of Texas citizens of what scholarly knowledge Texas students should learn. He also says we should delay the process because the process has not gone well and the SBOE-revised standards should be reviewed by history experts. Paige concludes: “What students are taught should not be the handmaiden of political ideology.” Amen.

State Representatives Dan Flynn and Wayne Christian now get to speak with personal privilege. Rep. Flynn simply says that the social studies standards should be adopted as revised by the SBOE and the vote not be postponed as many request. Rep. Christian says that disagreement exists in public policy but “we don’t get our hands chopped off or our heads cut off” when there are disagreements, thus getting in a bigoted insult against his view of Arabs and Moslems (political disagreement is actually widely tolerated in the Middle East without injury). He says that he has heard a lot of positive feedback from classroom teachers who support what the SBOE is doing to revise the social studies standards. Rep. Flynn says he has faith in the “Godly history” of our country. Mary Helen Berlanga asks if the two Reps. agree that history should be presented accurately and they both agree. She says that history books have not included the accurate and reliable history of discrimination against Hispanics in Texas and the United States and we continue to avoid mentioning that, including within the new social studies standards. Rep. Flynn responds that he is of Irish descent and that he has listened to stories from his grandparents of discrimination against the Irish in the early history of the U.S. and he applauds Ms. Berlanga’s efforts to include information about discrimination against Hispanics. Rep. Christian says that legislators should not legislate specific topics of history, including discrimination against minorities, but the SBOE members should. Both avoid the topic that Ms. Berlanga was trying to bring up, specifically that Hispanic-Americans, United States citizens, have experienced immense discrimination and this history is not included in the current SBOE-revised standards and she would like it to be (as it usually is for African-Americans, although she didn’t say this).

Rep. Christian says that the SBOE members that Texas citizens elected should be allowed to write the standards, ignoring the fact that these elected state officials are following their personal political, religious, and ideological agendas in their re-writing, not following the guidance of professional university historians who actually know what accurate and reliable history actually is. SBOE member Rick Agosto tells the Reps that “we are fighting” to get accurate social studies standards and the current document, as revised by the right-wing SBOE members, falls short and is not acceptable. Rep. Christian says he is glad Mr. Agosto is fighting since this shows that democracy is working and that the time has come to have a final vote, as if democracy and majority vote alone should be the process to decide what should go into the social studies standards. SBOE member Rene Nunez says that “fairness and historical accuracy” should also be used as justification for deciding what should go into the standards in addition to democracy. He makes the point that minorities make up a third of the State Board and a third of both houses of the Legislature, but Texas now has a majority minority population and its views should be represented fairly, but this is not happening under the majority votes of the SBOE. Rep. Christian disagrees, saying that currently elected public officials should make the decisions and that making decisions on the basis of race is wrong. Both Reps say the State Board’s democratic system of rewriting and adopting social studies standards is working well and that the social studies issue should come to a vote and final conclusion as the system requires with no delay.

It is now 10:25 a.m. Ronald Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and the third listed speaker, now speaks about errors that have entered the standards due to State Board revisions. He has a list of these errors. One deals with the Enlightenment and the new historical figures (Aquinas, Calvin, Blackstone) that were added and the removal of Jefferson from the list. Wetherington also criticized the removal of the term “Enlightenment,” since this was the central idea of the standard which was a good one. All the errors create a “disturbing and embarrassing pattern” of promoting personal ideologies rather than accurate history. He says the social studies TEKS-writing teams should review the newly-revised standards and make appropriate recommendations. Radical religious right members Leo and Mercer both mention a list of 48 states that don’t mention Thomas Jefferson as an Enlightenment figure. Wetherington responds that most of these states don’t mention specific historical Enlightenment figures at all, so this is a poor criticism of those who objected to the removal of Jefferson from the list of influential Enlightenment figures. Cynthia Dunbar states that the Laws of Nature doctrine was started by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin and it is important for students to know these two figures. She says the word “Enlightenment” was removed so that the list could now include the non-Enlightenment figures Aquinas, Calvin, and Blackstone that were added. Wethington says the Board removed the internal integrity and consistency of the standards as submitted by the expert historians who wrote the original standards and the Board should try to maintain and support this integrity and consistency rather than ruin it and create a “patchwork quilt” of standards revisions that damages the internal integrity and consistency.

Rene Nunez points out that the “lay Board” has already made over 300 revisions to the submitted standards and make make another 100 changes by Friday. He asks Wetherington if this process has been problematic. Wetherington says yes: most disagreements have been about hundreds of specific names and the standards should cover general principles and themes rather than specific names and events. SBOE Member Bob Craig asks if Wetherington agrees with Rod Paige that the standards document is now too long and specific and Wetherington says he agrees.

Daniel Bonevac, a University of Texas philosophy professor, congratulates the Board for its previous actions in revising the standards in a conservative direction. He says the history profession is overwhelmingly liberal and politically Democratic rather than Republican (there “is only one” on the UT history faculty, he says), so the standards as submitted were biased and he welcomes the Board’s revisions. He says that university faculties are overwhelmingly tilted to the left and the “writers of social studies curricula” all come from “left-wing” backgrounds (I happen to know that this slur misrepresents university academics–most are liberal, well within the intellectual and academic mainstream, not “left-wing,” so Prof. Bonevac’s comments reveal his polemical extremism). So he thinks the Board’s revisions have provided balance and he approves. Bonevac is a highly controversial figure within UT academics. He created a Western Civilization curriculum that was ultimately rejected by the UT faculty because it was tilted to conservative and classical history.

Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP speaks against the revised social studies standards, saying that many states have now said they will reject and not buy any history textbooks prepared using the Texas standards. For example, the standards took the word “slavery” out of the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, now called the “Atlantic triangular trade,” thus distorting history. Mr. Jealous wants the social studies standards to be historical and accurate, not biased as revised by the State Board. Radical right member Terri Leo takes exception to Mr. Jealous’s comments, demanding specific changes that he recommends. She derides him when he cannot provide specific items, saying that the Board has been dealing with specific items for two years and he is coming “late into the process.” Barbara Cargill tries to justify the change that the Board made to the name of the slave trade to disguise its main import of treating humans as trade items (changed to the “Atlantic triangular trade”). Jealous says again that the social studies standards process conducted by the lay Board should be delayed until the new standards are reviewed by legitimate historians and educators.

Kelly Shackelford congratulates the Board on removing the phrase “separation of church and state” from the social studies standards and replacing it with the actual words of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution. He misleadingly says the phrase is illegitimate and doesn’t reflect the meaning of the Establishment Clause. On the contrary, several Founders used the phrase to reflect their understanding of the Establishment Clause and the phrase has been used repeatedly by the Supreme Court in their decisions upholding their decisions against religious establishments.

Ken Mercer again reveals his ignorance. He says John Jay’s family (Jay was a Founder) lost their property in France due to the revocation of the tolerant “Edict of Nantes,” which Mercer pronounces “Nan-tess”! Mercer mentions the religious wars in France (French Catholics persecuted the Calvinist Protestant French Huguenots) without any comprehension that his motives and actions are identical to what was going on in France that led to Jay’s family loss of property. After a long period of religious tolerance in France, the Catholic aristocracy led by Louis XIV started again to kill Protestants to take their property to reduce their numbers and influence. This expression of state bigotry and malice is identical in intent if not degree by many of the Republican members on the SBOE. They are using their public offices to promote their own religious and political views in public school classrooms, weaken the nature of the secular public school classroom, crush dissenters, and encourage intolerance. Such ignorant and misguided actions–inspired by a radical religious right activism–will have far-reaching consequences in Texas, perhaps the same as in 17th century France. The Huguenots were skilled and industrious craftsmen and tradesmen who left France when the Edict of Nantes was revoked, greatly diminishing the power and stature of France, especially its valued reputation as a tolerant country. Ken Mercer is the perfect example of someone who is revising Texas history standards who is actually ignorant about and completely misunderstands history. Even worse, he wants to propel his ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance into future generations using his position as a public school official. I would say this is a textbook example of misuse of political power.

David Bradley mentions the “myth of separation of church and state” and asks Shackelford why the Ten Commandments are displayed in the Supreme Court building in Washington “39 times.” Shackelford says the Ten Commandments are displayed in the building, neglecting to state that they are legally contained in the context of dozens of other historical legal symbols of historical laws, not separated out as a special example. Most of the legal symbols are pagan and very non-Jewish and non-Christian, so Bradley’s understanding of the symbol’s significance is quite wrong as usual. Mercer and Dunbar discuss the legality of “Under God,” “In God We Trust,” and the Ten Commandments some more. Our national motto is “In God We Trust,” whic
has been controversial from the start. The Pledge of Allegiance contains the phrase “under God,” which is controversial. Sometimes the exhibit of the Ten Commandments is legal but usually illegal. All of these are constantly litigated. Shackelford mentions that he is representing the “5 million” veterans over the Christian cross on national park land in the Mojave Desert, initially set up as a war memorial. Actually, he is representing a very small group of people that want to keep the cross on exhibit on federal park land. Shackelford laments the fact that “vandals” destroyed the cross after the Supreme Court failed to rule the cross unconstitutional by a 5-4 decision and sent the case back to the District Court that initially ruled the cross was unconstitutional. Shackelford continues on about religious legal cases for about 20 minutes under questioning by Dunbar, Mercer, and Bradley without once touching on any social studies standard. Lowe does not stop this waste of time.

Robert Koons, a religious right University of Texas philosophy professor, does not appear in person but his presentation is read by another individual. Koons is also a contributor to the failed UT Western Civilization curriculum program. Koons asks the Board to not delay the vote but to adopt the revised social studies standards. Koons says that the standards are now stronger because, among other reasons, they add more information about some of the Christian Founders of the United States rather than concentrate on the better-known non-Christian Founders (Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Paine, etc.). He supports the addition of more information about the Christian underpinnings of the history of the U.S.

The next speaker, Terry Ann Kelly, thanks the State Board for recognizing that the Judeo-Christian religion is very important historically and for holding firm to the principles of including historical information about religion in their studies. She says the Board is correct to require schools to teach that “freedom of religion” rather than “freedom from religion” is both the law and historical truth. She doesn’t understand that freedom from religion makes freedom of religion possible. To practice one’s own religion one has to first be free from the establishment of other religions. This is so obvious, but the ignorance and bigotry of so many people such as Ms. Kelly who think that their Christian religion is the only true religion and are intolerant of other religions is so typical. She laments the times when students are forbidden in public schools to express their religious beliefs but she doesn’t acknowledge the context. Students can privately express their religious beliefs to themselves and others but not in the context of public or classroom performances or settings. These latter cases are led by school authorities–officials of the state–who cannot appear to give sanction to expressions of sectarian religious beliefs. Ms. Kelly went on and on about her misunderstanding of the law, a misunderstanding shared by Kelly Shackelford who Ms. Kelly mentioned as a supporting figure. SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar also goes on and on in support of these mistaken concepts. The radical religious right activists and polemicists constantly push these mistaken views as established law in public policy settings, but they are wrong and misguided and have only created more rancor and intolerance. This will be their ultimate legacy.

If you’ve read this far, you can see how the actions of the current State Board of Education have led to increased criticism, intolerance, and anger in the realm of religion. The original social studies standards were written from a secular, balanced, academic position that was tolerant of and accurate about American religious and Constitutional history. Now, the Board has opened a can of worms by their unacademic, unscholarly, and morally illegitimate–but nevertheless legal–actions in revising the social studies standards to more greatly reflect and promote their Christian and radical-right political views. Their radicalizing agenda has created an intolerable situation that has put Texas in a very bad, negative light when viewed from other states by more politically and religiously moderate people. Unfortunately, these radical religious right Board members are acting legally and democratically, which means the Texas system of adopting standards and textbooks by the majority votes of radical but popularly-elected state education officials is suspect and needs to be reformed. The Legislature has several times tried to reduce the powers of the State Board of Education, but all previous reforms have obviously failed as evidenced by the recently adopted English Language Arts and Science standards and the soon to be adopted Social Studies standards. The Legislature needs to act again, this time stripping the State Board of all authority over standards and textbooks.

The meeting adjourns for lunch at 12:25 p.m.

The meeting begins again at 1:13 p.m.

Several speakers appeared, including an excellent student Cameron White, who perceptively explained why what the SBOE was doing to distort and manipulate social studies standards was so damaging to education. She mentioned how what she learned about Christopher Columbus was wrong, and she learned later that Columbus was not totally the benign explorer she had originally studied. Ms. White also asked that accurate, reliable, and balanced history standards be written, not the politically manipulated ones we have now thanks to the State Board.

Rep. Donna Duke spoke next and asked that the SBOE delay their vote on the social studies standards. She said, in addition, that the Legislature can allocate, delay, or deny funds for textbooks if they don’t have enough information or don’t like the standards which the textbooks are supposed to written to.

Rep. Helen Giddings said that the focus should be on the academic achievement of our children, not on controversial political and religious issues. She says she is very dissatisfied with the educational achievement of Texas students (who rank 43rd among the 50 states, a very low achievement level for one of the wealthiest, most powerful states in the country).

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer says he came here because he was told that Hispanic-American figures were being eliminated from the history standards. He pointed out that the Hispanic-American caucus in the Texas House is the oldest and largest in the country. He said there has been a tremendous lack of transparency when he and others tried to investigate the problem of discrimination against minority representation in the standards and the lack of official review by informed social studies experts. We should not be in a hurry to adopt these standards. Why are we rushing? Two sessions may go by until we can fund these textbooks. We can rewrite and readopt these standards in 2011 or 2013. The Legislature can require this. Please reconsider the request for a delay in adoption.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer says unless there is an urgency in adopting these social studies standards on Friday, and there isn’t, he suggests that they be adopted in January, 2011. Mary Helen Berlanga mentions that SMU Prof. Ron Wetherington also suggested this, saying that we should have the social studies experts review the changes that have been made and make suggestions for improving the revised standards. Since these standards will last for ten years, they need to be scrutinized by professionals before finally adopted. We should not “shoot from the hip” when revising and adopting these standards. Mary Helen Berlanga, Rene Nunez, and Rick Agosto all approved of the idea to send the social standards document back to the experts for review and comment.

Rep. Alma Allen, SBOE member Lawrence Allen’s mother, was an SBOE member herself for 12 years. During that time, the focus was on children, not on ideology, personal beliefs, or personal agendas. The Board should aspire to make sure our children have the best education they can. She would like President Barack Obama’s name to be written into the standards as the first African-American President (amazingly, it is not there now after 300 revisions). On Friday, I hope all the media of the world will be able to report that the Texas SBOE did the right thing for children, leaving them the best standards that are inclusive of every child. Lawrence Allen responded and said he would amend the standards to include Barack Obama’s name.

Rep. Sylvester Turner is chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. He said he puts the textbook in a different category than typical legislation or politics. The textbook must be neutral, balanced, free of ideology. The textbook is to teach, not to indoctrinate or persuade. Textbooks should discuss, for example, the fact that American Blacks were lynched by White Racists in the Unites States. Keeping this story from children is keeping them ignorant, not educated. He asks that the social studies standards adoption be delayed. Let’s do what is in the best interest of the children of Texas.

Rick Agosto says that a professional organization of social studies teachers and professors has reviewed the proposed social studies standards and say that they are not in a form that is respectable and ready for use.

Rep. Ruth McClendon, the next speaker, says she is opposed to the State Board’s attempt to hijack the social studies standards. Minimizing the accomplishments of minorities and relegating many important historical minority figures is wrong.  She agrees there should be a delay. Barbara Cargill says that the members of the Board will never agree on how history is to be taught, so it would be a disservice to students to delay the final vote and adoption.

More later. I have to attend to some other business but I have someone taking notes.