Archive for September, 2015

How Pretty Much Everyone Got the Texas Textbook Story Wrong

Sep 07 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

So if you’ve been following the Texas textbook scandal, you’re aware that, beginning this fall, Texas children will learn that slavery didn’t cause the Civil War. You also know that their state-approved books will contain no mention of Jim Crow laws or black codes. This probably makes you outraged — as indeed it should if any of it was true, which it is not.

The way the Texas textbook story was covered is a mini-lesson in how one misleading story can spread across the web, getting progressively more wrong as it goes along.

Let’s start with The Washington Post:

Five million public school students in Texas will begin using new social studies textbooks this fall based on state academic standards that barely address racial segregation. The state’s guidelines for teaching American history also do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.

This is from a Post story that ran on July 5. There’s nothing about that lead that’s technically untrue, though I would argue that it creates a false impression. Before I explain why, let’s go to a Post editorial prompted by that story:

THIS FALL, Texas schools will teach students that Moses played a bigger role in inspiring the Constitution than slavery did in starting the Civil War. The Lone Star State’s new social studies textbooks, deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history, do not threaten only Texans — they pose a danger to schoolchildren all over the country.

Nope. All of that is demonstrably false.

I wrote a brief, front-of-the-book story about the textbook controversy for Texas Monthly, in which I explained what’s going on. I’ll quote myself:

In 2010 the Texas State Board of Education adopted curriculum standards—essentially instructions for publishers—that did, in fact, downplay slavery and discrimination. Scorn and ridicule quickly followed, even from unlikely sources such as the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which excoriated the state board for displaying “overt hostility and contempt for historians and scholars.”

Here’s the thing: textbook publishers appear to have mostly disregarded those ridiculous standards. The textbooks I looked at — ones that will be used by millions of Texas students — say that slavery is what led to the Civil War. There is absolutely no evidence I’ve seen that they were, as the Post asserts, “deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history.”

Other outlets piggybacked on the WaPo. Here’s Salon’s summary:

Millions of Texas schoolchildren will be learning about American history via a social studies textbook that locates the cause of the Civil War in Northern aggression against Southern states’ rights and never mentions the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reports.

Nope again. The textbooks totally mention the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. And we already went over the slavery bit.

Then a blogger for Slate wrote the following:

I grew up in Texas; I love the state deeply. But I am not raising my children there, in part because I want them to get a solid public education undistorted by the partisan fictions that are inundating Texas’ textbooks.

So let’s review. The initial Post story is confusing but not actually wrong. Then we get an editorial and a Salon story that are both wildly incorrect. Now Slate is suggesting, on the basis of these false stories, that people should avoid the state entirely because the textbooks are essentially white-supremacist propaganda masquerading as history and will transform your precious little ones into Confederate flag-waving bigots.

But we’re not finished. Bobby Finger at Jezebel then writes a piece that nods at my Texas Monthly item — acknowledging that some of the criticism may be overstated — but goes on to argue that the state’s textbooks, while perhaps not as terrible as some originally reported, are still pretty racist and awful.

Finger writes:

… after examining copies of the 7th grade, 8th grade, and high school-level books obtained by Jezebel, it was clear that this curriculum is riddled with omissions, making frequent use of convenient, deceptive juxtapositions of slaveholder violence and the slave resilience. Sure, Texas’s new textbooks aren’t an outright travesty. But that doesn’t mean they’re anywhere close to good.

Finger singles out this line from one of the textbooks for particular scorn: “To achieve these goals, the Klan and other groups killed perhaps 20,000 ​​men, women, and children.”

He objects because the sentence doesn’t state that these 20,000 were African-American. That actually seems clear from the context to me, but let’s go ahead and agree that it’s a problem. This line has zero to do with Texas’s state board: It’s from a history textbook that has been around for more than a decade. Schools all over the country use it. It has nothing, whatsoever, to do with the subject at hand, which is whether Texas’s textbooks were written to conform to the blinkered views of slavery apologists.

He has other examples too. He really dislikes a paragraph about lynching that contains this line: “African Americans and others who did not follow the racial etiquette could face severe punishment or ​​death.”

I think he misreads the tone, but it doesn’t matter: This is from a textbook — The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century — that’s used across the country. It was in print *before* the Texas standards. That book, with that exact language, is being used in (to pick a random example I found with 30 seconds of Googling) a public high school in Olympia, Washington. It is not evidence of a state board twisting history to make it seem less shameful. It just isn’t.

Now, if you want to have a larger conversation about whether textbooks generally do a good enough job explaining the country’s history of racial violence and white supremacy, by all means let’s talk. I think high school students should be required to read Ta-Nehisi Coates or Bryan Stevenson. Let’s really grapple with our ugly, racist past. Let’s grapple with our ugly, racist present while we’re at it.

But none of that is specific to Texas. And acting like it is lets the rest of the country off the hook.