Texas, Textbooks and Teaching : The Far Reaching Effects of the Texas Freedom Network’s New Report
Last month the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) published a report on the effects of Texas’s House Bill 1287.
Like most states, Texas allows its public schools to teach the cultural history of the Bible, the historical implications of Christianity on Western Civilization, and comparative religion in general. HB-1287 was designed to “improve the academic quality of [those] elective Bible courses while protecting the religious freedom of students and families.”
The results of the TFN report are disturbing, to say the least.
Authored by Southern Methodist University’s Professor of Religious Studies Mark A. Chancey, the report points to many disquieting trends. Much of what is being taught to children is of dubious scholarship; much of it is also certainly unconstitutional. Some of the more colorful examples from Chancey’s report include:
- Instructional materials that say human racial differences can be traced to Noah’s ark.
- Many courses teach that the Bible is “the written word of God,” and is literally true.
- Many courses teach that the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old.
- Many textbooks attempt to evangelize; the forward of one textbook states, “May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.’ And may you have ‘life in His name.’”
- Some students are being taught that Judaism is a “flawed” and “incomplete” religion.
- In many “comparative religion” courses, only End-of-Times Protestantism is taught.
- The coursework for many of these classes is simply memorizing certain passages from the Bible.
- Students are taught that the United States is meant to be a Christian nation; phony quotes from the Founding Fathers are placed alongside actual quotes to “prove” this. [Side note: According to Ed Brayton of Dispatches for the Culture War, these fictitious quotes can all be traced back to David Barton, whose impact on movement conservatism I noted last October.]
HB-1287 may well have been meant to improve scholarship and promote religious freedom and diversity in public schools. However, it seems clear that in practice it is being taken as signaling from the State to embrace the opposite. In addition, these lessons are making their way into other non-religious studies courses and texts, such as history, social studies, literature and science.
If this were any other state, all of this would be but a curiosity for most of us. But because this is Texas, the report could potentially be a national harbinger; if you live in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, it’s possible that – if left unchecked – this faulty scholarship might show up in your own child’s textbook in the next decade. This is because one of the single biggest influences of textbook content in the United States today (many say the single biggest) is the Texas State Board of Education.
There are really two main reasons why the Texas State Board of Education board has such disproportionate influence on our nation’s public school textbooks. One of those reasons is economics.
Like most other states, Texas allows local school districts to have some choice as to which textbooks to utilize. Unlike other states, however, the Texas Board picks up the entire cost of any book that is currently on the Board’s current approved-content list. Because textbooks are so expensive, this creates a far more homogenous textbook base than is found in most other states. After all, why should a district use any of its own discretionary funds to acquire new history or social studies books when they can get state-approved books for free? And because Texas has the second largest population in the country, textbook publishers will skew the content of most of their textbooks to make sure that they can compete for the nearly five million K-12 students that Texas can offer. Your local district might well have strong feelings about textbook content, but it simply lacks the market volume to get a Houghton Mifflin to change its press runs each year. Texas, on the other hand, does have that kind of buying power.
The other reason for their influence, however, is that Texas is actively trying to control the content of your child’s textbook.
Texas has long been ground zero for movement conservatives looking to change textbooks since the early 1960s, thanks in large part to the successful early efforts of Christian activists Mel and Norma Gabler.
In a 1982 interview on William Buckley’s Firing Line, the Gablers claimed that their interest in public school textbooks could be traced to discussions they had with their own son in 1961. According to Mel Gabler, his son presented him with materials that showed the school was teaching children that the Founding Fathers had wanted the United States to be a dictatorship; the son also showed Norma that American encyclopedias had removed the word “God” from the text of the Gettysburg address. (I confess I find both of these claims – that 1961 public school textbooks promoted dictatorships and encyclopedias from that same period looked to purge references to God – highly dubious.)
The Gablers began a grassroots effort to make sure that public school textbooks not only reflected what they believed to be accurate data, but that also avoided the potential pitfalls of secular propaganda. They were fine with schools’ teaching of the evils of communism, for example, but they thought it important that the school textbooks steered clear of describing the conditions that led some countries to overthrow their governments and implement Marxism. That kind of learning might well lead to un-American sentiment and communist sympathizing.
The Gablers’ overall strategy was well conceived. They were able to get significant financial backing from wealthy donors, which was somewhat unusual at that time for a cause such as school board races. Texas Board of Education elections are usually held in off years where voter turnout is low; before the Gablers not that many people cared about who sat on the board. Influencing Texas’s textbooks therefore turned out to be surprisingly easy for two people promoting the inherent goodness of God and America. And as Christian activists were thrilled to notice, as Texas went, so went textbook publishers.
The Gablers have long since passed, but the Christian right has continued their example of successfully leveraging Texas’ unique blend of movement conservatism, population size and publishing influence. Evolution, of course, is a frequent target of the Texas State Board or Education, but there are many others.
In 1994 the conservative Texans for Governmental Integrity began lobbying the Board that health textbooks gave tacit approval of homosexual lifestyles by acknowledging the existence of both the AIDS epidemic and gay teen suicide prevention groups. Within a decade, Holt, Rinehart and Winston – the largest publisher of high school health textbooks – began publishing textbooks that eliminated any acknowledgment of the existence of gay people.
Board members have also argued that focus on minority leaders in the civil rights movement should minimized, and that students should instead be taught that “only white people were responsible for advancing civil rights for minorities in America.”
Additionally, they have argued for textbooks to say that Reagan alone was responsible for the economic boom of the 90s, that Joe McCarthy was right all along, and that the abandonment of the gold standard led to the decline in the dollar. They want future world history textbooks to eliminate sections dealing with the crusades, since that time period might make Christians look bad to young impressionable eyes.
In my favorite anecdote, in 2010 the Board also threw out the children’s early-reader classic, Baby Bear Baby Bear, What Do You See? because the board mistakenly assumed that the author, Bill Martin Jr., was the same person as the Bill Martin who penned Ethical Marxism.
I wonder if the coming of electronic publishing will diminish the Texas stranglehold on textbook content, or if the need for electronic devices will mean that paperbound books are here to stay in K-12 education. But even if Raleigh, NC is able to order whatever textbook content it wants, regardless of who else wants to teach same content, I wonder if that’s a good thing.
If I’m being honest, I want variety in public education – but only up to a point. If we have the time and money, I’d love for Whole Language and Phonics made available to teachers and students; I don’t want textbooks telling kids that Judaism is “flawed” and “incomplete,” no matter how much the local school board thinks it so.
 Interestingly, there is in fact a fringe belief that Lincoln did not utter the word “God” in his most famous speech. (Though there appears to be no record of this fringe belief making its way into the nation’s encyclopedias.) Much of this conjecture seems to be based on the fact that the two earliest drafts of the address known to exist do not in fact contain the phrase “under God.” The later drafts (including the only one signed by Lincoln) do contain the phrase, however; in addition, reporters and stenographers at Gettysburg all quote the President saying “under God.” Most of those that continue to insist God does not appear in the text are those that, ironically, demand the same kind of conspiracy laden, ideology-enhancing retrofit of history that the Gablers themselves insist upon.