Entry from March 12, 2010

Those darn Texans are at it again, according to The New York Times. Or, to be precise, it’s those darn “Texas Conservatives” who are said to “Seek Deeper Stamp on Texts.” Perhaps they should consider embossing them? But it turns out that James C. McKinley, Jr., is writing about the Texans’ penchant for tampering with what we might call the settled history being taught to school children — the settled history in this case being somewhat less reliably settled than even the supposedly settled science of global warming.

Even as a panel of educators laid out a vision Wednesday for national standards for public schools (writes Mr Mckinley), the Texas school board was going in a different direction, holding hearings on changes to its social studies curriculum that would portray conservatives in a more positive light, emphasize the role of Christianity in American history and include Republican political philosophies in textbooks.

Actually, they were going in the same direction, but to different standards. Since when, you may wonder, did “more positive” portrayals of conservatives — more positive than what? — and belief in the importance of Christianity in US history become “Republican political philosophies”? The answer is since negative portrayals of conservatives and of the Christian influence on American history became routine among historians. Do we, on that account, call these historians advocates for “Democratic political philosophies? No, but we should, for that is the polite way to say what they are. Actually, most of them are well to the left of the mainstream Democratic party.

To his credit, Mr McKinley provides extensive examples of the kinds of things the Texas conservatives want to change:

For instance, one guideline requires publishers to include a section on “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” There have also been efforts among conservatives on the board to tweak the history of the civil rights movement. One amendment states that the movement created “unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes” among minorities. Another proposed change removes any reference to race, sex or religion in talking about how different groups have contributed to the national identity. The amendments are also intended to emphasize the unalloyed superiority of the “free-enterprise system” over others and the desirability of limited government. One says publishers should “describe the effects of increasing government regulation and taxation on economic development and business planning.” Throughout the standards, the conservatives have pushed to drop references to American “imperialism,” preferring to call it expansionism. “Country and western music” has been added to the list of cultural movements to be studied. References to Ralph Nader and Ross Perot are proposed to be removed, while Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, is to be listed as a role model for effective leadership, and the ideas in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address are to be laid side by side with Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.

Why is this even a story? Is there anything in this list that a non-partisan historian — if any such there be anymore — would quarrel with as important to an understanding of American history? That business about “the unalloyed superiority of the ‘free-enterprise system’ over others and the desirability of limited government,” scare quotes and all, strikes me as a tendentious paraphrase of something that is likely to be less controversial, namely the assumption of the truth of that superiority and that desirability by the great majority of Americans on both sides of the political divide throughout most of our history. The same with American imperialism, a term which, if it had been understood at all, would have been considered oxymoronic by most people up until only a generation ago. But they were all for expansion of the Union into new territories.

And that’s really the trouble, isn’t it? There used to be consensus about such things when I was growing up. American patriotism and the assumption that the country had always been, in spite of its failings and mistakes, a force for good in the world could always be taken for granted. Then came the “Tenured Radicals” of the 1960s and their radically different set of assumptions about America and the world — to which most of these supposedly “conservative” changes are in fact intended as a corrective. In other words, it was the left which politicized the study of history — the left would of course argue that the politics of, say, the “free-enterprise system” had always been implicit and it had merely exposed them — and the right which now wants to return to a more innocent time before that intervention.

I fear that this will prove impossible. De-politicization of history, as the Times piece shows us, is now just another form of politicization. Too many people believe in American “imperialism” and the inferiority of the free-enterprise system — not to mention the iniquity of Stonewall Jackson, the significance of Ralph Nader or the insignificance of Country and Western music — for the denial of such once-controversial contentions not to be equally political. But, typically, the Times attributes all the politics of this ideological tussle to the conservative side, none of it to their own. It’s yet another way in which the media’s continuing attempts to moralize political (and historical) debate is really an attempt to cut off debate. You don’t want a politicized curriculum do you? And if you protest that it is already politicized, you are likely to find yourself as ignored as you are by James C. McKinley, Jr.

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