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The Texas Textbook Wars

Tags EducationMedia and CultureInterventionism

03/17/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Standards and Textbooks."]

Late last week, the Texas Board of Education, meeting in Austin, the state capitol, made some preliminary decisions about what the next generation of students will learn about subjects like history, economics, and sociology, when they take courses in those subjects in any of the Lone Star State's public schools. The board decided, for example, to make a fairly significant change in the existing official description of what a successful Texas student should know about the influence of 17th- and 18th-century ideas after completing a required course in world history in a Texas public school.

The existing description stated that a student who completed that course would be able to "explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present." The newly amended description states that a student completing the world-history course should be able to "explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone." It may be difficult to understand at first why the members of the Texas Board of Education consider Aquinas, Calvin, and Blackstone more worthy of study than Thomas Jefferson, until one recalls that, as the New York Times's James McKinley succinctly put it, "Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term 'separation between church and state.'"

What is the significance of the board's vote in favor of this change and others like it? Why are votes about teaching standards in Texas public schools making national news, anyway? Why should this be of concern to anybody outside of Texas? Should it be of concern to anybody outside Texas?

Well, yes. Anyone at the mercy of the public school system in any state, as well as anyone who wants to understand how the public schools work and why, should find these developments of interest. You see, Texas's importance is directly connected with its size — its population. It's the 2nd most populous state, right after California. It has roughly 25 million residents. Combine that with California's 37 million and you get the following, somewhat unsettling statistic: one in every five Americans lives in either California or Texas; gather a hundred Americans into a big room and you'll find that twenty of them live in either California or Texas. Both states set statewide standards for every course offered in their public school systems, then provide copies of these standards to textbook publishers. Who can really blame the publishers if they react by, first, producing textbooks that meet the standards in Texas and California and, then, providing those same textbooks to everybody else in the country, too, whether they like it or not? Chalk it up to the unintended consequences — or were they unintended? — of turning schooling into a public utility instead of leaving it in the hands of the market, which is to say, in the hands of individuals.

So, then, exactly what is wrong with having textbooks that consider Thomas Jefferson an unimportant figure in a discussion of the impact of 17th- and 18th-century ideas on later generations? Well, to put it baldly, the history textbook he or she encounters in high school and/or college will very likely be the only thing the average product of our public education system ever reads on the subject of history — if he or she actually reads it. It does seem to be the case that these textbooks constitute 100 percent of the information that most high-school and college graduates in this country will ever encounter on the subject of American history. And is it not the case that what Americans know and understand about the history of the society in which they live will determine the degree of their willingness to honor and preserve that society's ideals and traditions? More than that: it will determine what they regard as the ideals and traditions of their society. It will determine nothing less than the kind of society they will seek to strengthen and perpetuate.

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser note in a recent report in The Journal of American History that "most teachers of United States history survey courses assign a textbook as core reading, and many assign only a textbook. … American history textbooks shape how American college students encounter their nation's history and their society's cultural heritage."[1] Things have been this way for a long time — and not only for college students. According to Frances FitzGerald,

[i]n the nineteenth century, a heavy reliance on textbooks was the distinguishing mark of American education; it was called "the American system" by Europeans. The texts were substitutes for well-trained teachers; in some parts of the country, they constituted the whole of a school's library and the only books a child would ever read on the subject of, say, American history.[2]

More than a hundred years later, the story is little changed. As of 2003, according to Diane Ravitch,

[t]extbooks are very important in American schools, especially in history. In most history classes, they are the curriculum. Many teachers are dependent on their textbook because they have not studied history. Today, most teachers of history in grades 7–12 have neither a major nor a minor in history. Instead they have a degree in social studies education, some other branch of pedagogy, a social science, or a completely unrelated field.[3]

Early in 2005, the late Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor, reported in the Los Angeles Times that "[n]early a third of the students who apply to Stanford's master's in teaching program to become history teachers have never taken a single college course in history." Nor is this at all out of the ordinary, for, again in Wineburg's words, "[a]mong high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even minored) in the subject they now teach."[4]

For most students of history in public secondary schools in this country, then, the implications seem straightforward: "what they are taught will be the material in the textbook."[5] This is why special interest groups of all sorts have been struggling over the past hundred years or so to get a chance to influence what appears in that textbook.

For it was just a little over a hundred years ago that public secondary schools first became an important force in American education. Before the 1890s, according to Frances FitzGerald, "American history was not very widely taught. The public grade schools had very little history of any kind in their curricula, and the private academies that prepared students for colleges and universities concentrated on classical studies and European history." But as the 1890s dawned, the "public high schools" for the first time actually "had more students than the private academies."[6] And the question of what was written in the history textbooks used by those public high schools therefore began to interest a great many people who had previously invested little or no thought in such matters.

By 1897, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization for soldiers who had fought in the Union Army during the US Civil War, had formed a "school history committee" and had begun issuing calls "for a unified schoolbook that would bind [all sections of the country] together." At around the same time, the history committee of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) made a similar demand. By the 1920s, such groups had begun filing lawsuits or enlisting sympathetic public officials to go after textbooks in court. Thus, in 1927, Chicago Mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson convened "a dismissal hearing for Superintendent William McAndrew, whom Thompson accused of imposing 'treasonous' and 'un-American' texts on the schools." Thompson made these history textbooks — including especially The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard — the centerpiece of his public case against McAndrew. Nor was Chicago the only venue in which protests against the Beards' text were mounted during the '20s. They raged nationwide, "from Boston and Baltimore to Seattle and San Francisco."[7]

What the protesters found so objectionable about the Beards' text was its unduly "pro-English" character. The movement against this book "drew most of its support from Irish and German immigrants," neither of whom would have been too keen on any book that portrayed the English too favorably.[8]

The Beards wrote, for example, that the "high doctrines" of the Founding Fathers

were essentially English, being derived … from the writings of John Locke, the philosopher who supplied the rhetorical defense mechanism for the Whig revolution of 1688 which ended in the expulsion of James II. In Locke's hands, the catechism of politics was short indeed: the aim of government is to protect property and when any government invades the privileges of property, the people have a right to alter or abolish the government and establish a new one. The idea was almost a century old when Jefferson artfully applied it in a modified form to the exigencies of the American Revolution.[9]

The Veterans of Foreign Wars was particularly indignant about this passage. "The inspired men," they complained, "who startled the world with their new conception of human rights are charged with having plagiarized it all from England."[10]

The protests and official inquiries into the unduly pro-British textbooks of the 1920s did have impact here and there. The historian Andrew C. McLaughlin, for example, was forced to change a sentence in his account of the battle of Bunker Hill. His original, unduly pro-British sentence had read: "Three times the British returned courageously to the attack." His new sentence read: "Three times the cowardly British returned to the attack."[11] But by and large, the efforts of the reformers were not repaid with significant success.

The reformers kept trying, however, and eventually they began to enjoy significant success. In 1962, for example, the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) petitioned the Detroit Board of Education, asking that a "history text, published by Laidlaw Brothers, [which] depicted slavery in a favorable light" be withdrawn "from the city school system."[12] The NAACP had been protesting textbooks for thirty years at this point, ever since 1932, the year in which it established its first textbook committee and "called on local branches to examine their history, literature, and civics textbooks — and to protest the most offensive texts."[13] But though "[t]he N.A.A.C.P. and other civil-rights organizations had denounced racial prejudice in the textbooks a number of times in prior years," they had had "no real effect."[14]

In 1962, however, the NAACP finally prevailed. Frances FitzGerald writes that

[T]he Detroit board withdrew the text, and subsequently began to examine for racial bias all the history texts used in the school system. The Newark Textbook Council soon followed suit. The movement then spread to other big-city school systems and was taken up by organizations representing other racial and ethnic minority groups — Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Armenian-Americans, and so on — all of whom claimed, with justice, to have been ignored or abused by the textbooks.

Then the new "movement," as FitzGerald styles it, mushroomed.

Within a few years, a dozen organizations from the B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League to a new Council on Interracial Books, were studying texts for racial, ethnic, and religious bias and making recommendations for a new generation of texts. What began as a series of discrete protests against individual books became a general proposition: all texts had treated the United States as a white, middle-class society when it was in fact multiracial and multicultural.

The Detroit NAACP's modest protest of 1962 had made what seemed like massive changes in the nation's history textbooks, and it had wasted little time in doing so — "by the late sixties," FitzGerald writes, the "general proposition" that "all texts" had shortchanged minorities had "come to be a truism for the educational establishment."[15]

And so was born the world we see around us today, a world in which political pressure wielded by aggrieved interest groups, whether African-American or Hispanic or Republican, imposes textbooks designed to promote particular interest-group fantasies on everyone else in the geographical area.

What is needed here, of course, is some revisionist history. The basic reason libertarianism needs revisionist history is that the state pays "court historians" to prepare an officially sanctioned version of the public record that is designed to promote the idea that the state holds our society together and protects it, and that our society would be utterly lost were it not for the noble efforts of the state. Anyone who seeks to become educated, anyone who seeks to promote an alternative to the state, needs to know the truth — needs a sustained look at the country's history without the tacit assumption of the state's benevolence and central importance. But it isn't only the state itself that promotes historical misinformation and historical ignorance. In a democratic state, it is also members of aggrieved minorities who use the political process to force their particular delusions onto everyone else's children.

If you liked my brief discussion of the history of attempts to influence textbooks in public schools, you might like to know that it was adapted from chapter 6 of my book Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism. You can get a copy of it right here on this website, either as a free PDF downloadDownload PDF or as a paperback book. There's also a Kindle edition available at Amazon.com.


[1] Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, "'The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth': Writing, Producing, and Using College-Level American History Textbooks." Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 4, March 2005, p. 1380.

[2] Frances FitzGerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage Books, 1980 [1979]), p. 19.

[3] Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (New York: Knopf, 2003), p. 140.

[4] Sam Wineburg, "Shouldn't Teachers of History Have Majored in History?" Los Angeles Times. February 24, 2005. [emphasis added]

[5] Ravitch, op.cit., p. 140.

[6] FitzGerald, op.cit., pp. 48, 50.

[7] Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 18, 1.

[8] Ibid., p. 58.

[9] Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, vol. 1, p. 240.

[10] Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 58.

[11] FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 35.

[12] Ibid., p. 38.

[13] Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 47.

[14] FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 38.

[15] Ibid., p. 39.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.

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