History, the Right Way



Dave Mann

If nothing else, the Texas State Board of Education is making the world safe for right-wing scholarship, one subject at a time.

Last year the board revised the science curriculum taught in Texas schools, and socially conservative scholars and creationists from across the nation descended on Texas to argue against such mainstream scientific theories as evolution, adaptation, the Big Bang, global warming, and, in some cases, anything hinting that life on Earth began more than 6,000 years ago.

This year, the board is rewriting standards for social studies classes, and so far the process feels eerily familiar. Board members recently invited six experts to review social studies standards. Three are well-regarded academics at Texas universities (one is a former state historian). The other three are ideological choices: David Barton, a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and founder of WallBuilders, which advocates against the separation of church and state; Daniel Dreisbach, a conservative historian at American University in Washington, D.C., who has written numerous articles challenging the separation of church and state; and Rev. Peter Marshall, a Christian conservative minister from Massachusetts.

Together, they form a small rogue’s gallery of historical scholarship. In their review of the current social studies curriculum, they raise objections to teaching some basic tenets of American history. You can probably guess a few. They want Texas kids taught that America was founded as a Christian nation. They want no mention of the separation of church and state. They also object to learning about such historical figures as Thurgood Marshall, César Chávez, Amelia Earhart, and Colin Powell, among others. Go figure.

Barton, who declined an interview request from the Observer, is less strident in his critique of the social studies standards. Still, he advocates more emphasis on the central role of the Bible and Christian beliefs in America’s founding ideals. He also objects to students studying Chávez, the Latino civil rights activist, and Powell, the nation’s first African-American secretary of state and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rev. Marshall writes in his critique, “To have César Chávez listed next to Ben Franklin is ludicrous. Chávez is hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation.” Reading Rev. Marshall’s review is, at times, like stepping into another world in which school kids learn about obscure, ultrareligious founding fathers instead of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, and Earhart, the pioneering aviator. The good reverend contends that neither is significant enough to warrant students’ attention. In critiquing the curriculum dealing with famous inventors and scientists, he writes that scientist Benjamin Banneker, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and astronomer Carl Sagan constitute a “rather pathetic list.”

For his part, Dreisbach writes that students need not spend time studying innovative nurse Florence Nightingale.

Last year, the fight over science standards didn’t go particularly well for the seven social conservatives on the 15-member board. They had marginal success in getting their controversial proposals included in the final science standards. The board will begin debating the social studies curriculum this fall.

“We’re in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America,” Rev. Marshall told the Wall Street Journal recently. “The record of American history is right at the heart of it.”