History 101: Ignorance as Power

Peggy Venable is the director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy (TCSE), a conservative organization that promotes the free enterprise system and limited government. It was with restrained frustration that she recently repeated her mantra for me: “We are not trying to censor textbooks, we only want them to be accurate.”

This is hardly news. Venable, after all, has repeated the same claim in every major Texas newspaper, in The New York Times and Mother Jones, on NPR and “The Phil Donahue Show.” The reason she’s had to hammer the point is that Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, like similarly self-appointed conservative watchdog groups, wields power–to fact-check and, some would say, to censor–out of all proportion to its credentials.

Social studies textbooks are currently up for review before the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), with formal adoptions to come in November. Texas is the nation’s second largest textbook market. Publishers have thus learned to tread carefully before the watchful eye of volunteer readers like Venable who, with a few well-placed objections, can make the difference between a textbook’s adoption or rejection, not just in Texas, but also in the rest of the nation, which tends to follow the lead of the larger markets.

Venable’s organization is one of nine conservative groups in Texas participating in an informal coalition to vet social studies textbooks for “factual errors” before the board votes. Its work capitalizes on the Texas Education Code’s mandate that public schools produce “thoughtful, active citizens who understand the importance of patriotism and can function productively in a free enterprise society with appreciation for the basic democratic values of our state and national heritage.” With the exception of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the one group that pays its readers, the coalition depends on volunteers to sniff through texts and report their findings at public hearings held before the conservative and sympathetic SBOE. These readers are passionate, committed, and earnest people. They are well organized, they speak with a unified voice, and they are inordinately powerful. Carol Jones, field director for TCSE, spoke to that power when she told The New York Times, “The bottom line is that Texas and California are the biggest buyers of textbooks in the country, and what we adopt in Texas is what the rest of the country gets.”

These volunteers are also, on the evidence of their complaints, woefully ill-prepared to judge the historical record. Less than half of TPPF readers hold Ph.Ds. Only two hold them in history. Their amateur historical opinions, like those from the rest of the coalition, are nonetheless authoritatively presented, and strongly held.

The first hearing took place on July 17, and provided a telling display of historical illiteracy. The testimony began with Amy Lefore, a reader for the Texas Justice Foundation, a group that litigates in support of limited government, free markets, and parental rights. Lefore reported to the board that the authors of the U.S. government textbook that she studied portrayed the constitutional convention in a negative light, “focusing on tension and discontent.” They did so, she said, by citing participant Gouverneur Morris’s remark that the Constitution was a flawed, compromised document. The text further mentioned that the founding fathers, after writing this flawed, compromised document, retired to–horrors–a tavern. But these points, both of which are factually correct, were mere quibbles. Lefore’s primary concern was that the book downplayed that strain of political thought called Federalism–a bias prompting her to recommend a “stronger commitment to accuracy” from the publisher.

Never mind that, as a political party, the Federalists were finished as early as 1814, or that James Madison, the father of Federalism, looked at America in the 1830s and shuddered over what the Constitution had wrought. And never mind that as soon as Lefore sat down, board member Cynthia Thornton directed her to “look at the back of the book,” where two key Federalist documents–#10 and #51–were printed in full. Perhaps Lefore failed to check for such evidence before making her claims public, or maybe she was unaware that Federalism is best summarized in the Federalist Papers. Either way, the gist she wanted to convey on record was that “The students aren’t shown [the Constitution’s] beauty and aren’t given pride in it. And I can’t see how we’d want to raise them up so they enter government with such a low view of the Constitution.”

Basic problems with historical interpretation continued when Jennifer Powell stepped to the podium. Powell, representing the Texas Justice Foundation, had vetted two eighth grade history textbooks, focusing on the American Revolution. After praising both books for including time lines, maps, and full copies of the Declaration of Independence, she complained that neither textbook said enough about the “founding fathers’ backgrounds.” Like Franklin’s tendency to get drunk, chase women, and trash-talk Germans? Or Jefferson’s passel of slaves, with at least one of whom he slept? Not quite. What Powell wanted was reference to the fact that “Twenty-seven out of fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence had seminary degrees.”

This is a totally useless statistic, given that anyone who went to college in the eighteenth-century had to come out with a seminary degree, not to mention that the founders were almost thoroughly deist in their spiritual orientation–believing in God while rejecting Christian concepts like resurrection and other supernatural doctrines. Nonetheless, this supposedly grave omission was enough for board member David Bradley to straighten his American flag tie and declare that the text’s portrayal was inevitably biased because all but one of the publishing companies was British-owned. “Brits,” he exclaimed, “are writing our history books!”

As if the morning couldn’t get any more surreal, up walked volunteer reader Margie Raborn, from TCSE. Americans, she said, after delivering a bewildering anecdote about dogs, “are a special breed.” Our nation, she elaborated, “was founded on Biblical principles. Our rights come from our creator. This is not some personal bias. This is recorded historical fact. If we do not make sure that this information is passed on to the next generation, we will have failed them.”

A few minutes later, board member Bradley piped in, apropos of nothing, “a textbook should be a very good primary source.” A group of students from Brownsville, lined along the back wall, could be seen looking at each other in utter confusion.

The morning’s highlight, though, belonged to Eleanor Hutcheson, a volunteer from the Texas Daughters of the American Revolution. Hutcheson began her testimony with a flurry of disconnected complaints about several Texas history textbooks. One book praised the parenting techniques of Native Americans even though Indians were not, she said, kind parents when “they ate their enemies.” She chided another book for asserting as fact that “laws [in Jim Crow Texas] kept African Americans from voting,” a claim with which she had “a problem.” Hutcheson even took offense at the book’s description of America’s World War II military base facilities as “plain and functional.” That characterization, Hutcheson said, “is negative to military efforts.” She ended her analysis with the assertion that “most blacks who voted in 1932 were loyal to the Republicans,” overlooking the facts that blacks could not legally vote in Texas primaries until 1944 (after which they overwhelmingly voted Democratic), and that parts of Texas didn’t even have a Republican primary.

It was when Hutcheson ventured directly into race, however, that sparks flew. Before getting specific, she explained, “it is a fact there was discrimination… with African Americans. It is a fact there was discrimination… for non African-Americans, for Chinese, for whites, for browns, whatever race you want to talk about.” Then she took exception to a photograph of a Depression-era African-American domestic worker. The caption implied that the woman suffered racial discrimination. “Why not just praise her for her hard work?” Hutcheson asked. “Why focus on discrimination?”

At this, board member Alma Allen finally spoke. “I’m Alma Allen, from Houston, Texas, I’m a black woman. What’s your point?”

Hutcheson stepped aside the podium, leaned forward, held her hand to her ear, and asked Allen to repeat the question. She did. Hutcheson asked her to repeat it again. Allen did. Hutcheson then wagged her finger at Allen, mockingly admonishing her to remove her hand from her mouth when she spoke. “My point,” she said, after finishing this charade, “is why do they put her up as having a terrible hardship?” Allen: “It was hardship. I want every kid to know how it impacted our lives.” Several board members tried to throw Hutcheson a rope, offering her a chance to save face for the TDAR, if not herself.

“So these are pretty much the official viewpoints of the DAR?” asked board member Dan Montgomery. “No, they are not,” interrupted Grace Shore, the board’s chair. “Yes, yes indeed,” said Hutcheson.

Reflecting on the morning’s events, Carol Jones, from TCSE, called it “very good testimony,” adding that any Texas teachers who oppose the citizen recommendations “need to get their heads out of the sand.” If this was the public face of historical ignorance, I wondered, what’s going on behind the scenes? Was the SBOE hearing a perverse misrepresentation of a competent effort to make social studies’ texts more reliable and challenging educational tools? Or was Columbia professor and social critic Andrew Delbanco’s recent claim–”the less you know about a case, the less you need to recuse yourself from serving as a judge”–the logic driving this process?

Most readers contacted refused to discuss the intricacies of textbook vetting, claiming that they weren’t any good with the press. But several, like the Texas Eagle Forum’s Becky Armstrong, were eager to discuss their methods. With an English degree from A&M, the 25-year-old admitted to knowing nothing about most of American history, a deficit which pushed her to read her American history text alongside an encyclopedia, substantiating every single claim, and indeed finding several minor factual errors.

Despite these efforts, Armstrong’s critiques were either irrelevant or misinformed. In a section of the book titled “The First Global Age,” for example, she flagged the book for failing to mention the word “resurrection” in its overview of Christianity. In a world history text that Armstrong also read, she starred a section on “types of government” as especially weak. Listing direct democracy, representative democracy, monarchy, and dictatorship as the four major forms of government, the text failed, she said, “in that the word ‘republic’ was never used.”

“We are a democratic republic, not a representative democracy. Some people think we are a democracy, we are not.” Asked to clarify the distinction, Armstrong paused and admitted that she really didn’t know but that “it’s a slight difference,” and her husband could probably tell me.

Despite her lack of expertise, Arm-strong feels passionately that, when it comes to vetting textbooks, “everyone should do what they can–if something strikes you, it does.” She’s “tired of being told that parents are not qualified–anyone can learn to do this, we are trying to get people not to be scared of the process.”

Carol Jones doesn’t have this problem. Her involvement with textbooks dates back to her work in the Reagan Department of Education. “I have a lot of experience with this. I look at [history] in light of ‘let’s not make it up.’ History is about the facts.” Then, without prompting, Jones provided the following as an example of factual history: “The first American colony was established in 1607. That’s a fact.” When reminded that the Spanish established the Kingdom of New Mexico in 1540, she said, “Look, my overriding concept is that this nation has contributed more to the world than any other nation has.” In a later conversation she explained why academic historians aren’t to be trusted. She recalled reading in one textbook that “sources tell us that the first person to be killed in the Revolutionary War was an African-American-Native-Indian.”

“What’s with this ‘sources tell us?'” Jones wondered, before adding that another historian had the nerve to write that Castro took over Cuba “to provide better health care and education.” Proof positive, she explained, that “academicians don’t have a corner on the facts.”

Of all the involved groups, the Texas Public Policy Foundation undertook the most comprehensive investigation of social studies textbooks. Spending nearly $100,000 to hire 16 textbook readers, it reported at the July 17 hearing, with fanfare, that 533 errors had been found in 28 books.

Readers I spoke with from TPPF plan to testify that their books failed in a number of respects. One book “does not mention Milton Friedman,” the radical free-market economist, while implying that “free enterprise does little for the young, the infirm, and the elderly.” Another was “anti-war,” presenting Vietnam as “a horrible thing for America.” Yet another did not explain that the world is more peaceful today than 100 years ago because of “free trade”–a clear symptom of the book’s tendency to “present opinion as fact.”

In the end, considering the work of Texas’ textbook vetters, Venable may be right. This is not censorship. It is, more accurately, a thorough and shameless whitewashing of historical reality. For reasons that defy logic, and betray profound insecurity, conservatives want to fabricate a history that downplays conflict, highlights consensus, glorifies the free market, and mythologizes flawed human beings as infallible gods. With textbook publishers more concerned with their markets than balanced history, the fact that these unqualified volunteer readers have set the terms of the debate should compel not only progressive Texans, but parents and educators throughout the country to oppose this process.

It would be nice to dismiss these vetters as marginal voices in an otherwise reasoned debate. But that would overlook the reality that the coalition is currently positioned to edit out of textbook history the conflict and self-questioning that makes history such an intellectually invigorating subject.

Here in Austin, the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that monitors the actions of the religious right, has begun the opposition in earnest. Their “I Object” campaign has also solicited volunteer readers, mostly professors and graduate students, to testify at future SBOE hearings. But the battle is uphill. With the Freedom Network’s dozens against the conservative coalition’s hundreds, and a SBOE temperamentally sympathetic to the coalition’s concerns, readers like Peggy Venable and Carol Jones have a head start.

TFN volunteer Shelley Powers, for instance, is considering a textbook that weighs the historical contributions of Adam Smith alongside those of Karl Marx. Her assessment of the text’s future at the hands of conservative volunteer vetters speaks volumes. “It’s dead in the water,” Powers sighed.

James McWilliams is a writer living in Austin.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST