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Bill Moyers | Messing With Texas Textbooks

In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education approved over 100 amendments to the social studies and economics curriculum standards.

(Photo: Brad Herman / Flickr)

Part of the Series

One of the tasks of the Texas State Board of Education is to update curriculum standards and textbooks for Texas schoolchildren. The Texas school system is so large — 4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011 — that revisions made by the board are often included in school books across the country, though digital technology has lessened this effect in recent years. In 2010, the board got a lot of attention when it approved over 100 amendments — many of which had a very clear conservative political agenda — to the social studies and economics curriculum standards. Here are some of the more pointed proposals.

Thomas Who?
Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father considered by many to be the author of the Declaration of Independence, is also credited with coining the phrase “separation of church and state.” According to The New York Times, that coinage didn’t make him very popular with the conservative members of the board. They removed Jefferson from a list of great Enlightenment philosophers — including John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau — who inspired political revolutions from the 1700s to today. They also removed the word “Enlightenment” and added Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. After much criticism, they added Jefferson back, but left out “Enlightenment” resulting in a standard very different from the original.

Downplaying Religious Freedom
A proposed amendment from one of the Democratic board members would have required students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” One Republican member argued that the “founders didn’t intend for separation of church and state in America” and called the statement “not historically accurate” and the conservative members voted down the standard. The board then added a new one that suggests the “separation of church and state” is not a key principle of the First Amendment.

Censoring Capitalism
Citing negative connotations, conservative board members decreed that all instances of the word “capitalism” should be replaced with “free-enterprise system.” They also objected to “democratic,” so “democratic societies” and “representative democracy” were replaced by “republic.” Any reference to American “imperialism” was also stricken and replaced with “expansionism.” In the textbooks, imperialism could only be associated with European and Russian colonialism.

Super” Heroes?
In perhaps the most blatant political move, the board passed an amendment requiring U.S. history students to learn about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s,” but not about liberal or minority groups. Conservative heroes including Phyllis Schlafly, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association were added, and more frequent mentions of President Ronald Reagan were encouraged. As Chairman Don McLeroy explained to the Washington Monthly: “He needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

Bling’s the Thing
Earlier this week, the Texas GOP released their 2012 platform which includes, among other controversial policy positions, a desire to return to the gold standard. The United States left the gold standard for good in 1971 and most economists agree that move was a good thing. The school board held a debate — unattended by any economists — and arbitrarily passed a revised standard that requires students to “analyze the decline in the value of the U.S. dollar, including the abandonment of the gold standard.”

The Great Society (Maybe Not So Great?)
The board approved a standard requiring students to learn about “any unintended consequences” of the Great Society, affirmative action and Title IX. Other attempts to change the way the civil rights movement was taught, including a provision that would require students learn that it created “unreasonable expectations for equal outcomes,” failed to pass.

Socialists Get the Boot
Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, was dropped from a third grade list of “historical and contemporary figures who have exemplified good citizenship.” Conservative board members said Huerta is not a good role model for third-graders because she’s a socialist. Helen Keller, a staunch socialist, was left on the books.

Exhuming McCarthy
Far right members of the board — hoping to lessen criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s hearings — passed a standard that would make students learn “how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.”

Googling Boondoggle
South Texas artist Santa Barraza was recommended for inclusion in a 7th grade standard by a Latina board member. Another member googled the artist and was offended by one of her paintings that included minor female nudity. She showed it to her colleagues and they refused to add her to the standard. The Texas Freedom Network notes that several of Barraza’s paintings were hanging in the Texas governor’s mansion while George W. Bush was in residence in the 1990s. The conservative bloc also removed hip hop from a list of culturally significant musical genres.