Clockwise, from upper left: John Calvin, William Blackstone, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire. Public domain images.
By SEAN BATURA
Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) members recently gave preliminary approval to controversial changes in Kindergarten through 12th grade social studies curriculum standards, bringing the eyes of the nation upon the Lone Star State.
Critics of the changes say the new standards are the work of a Christian conservative bloc of about seven members of the 15-member board, who seek the delete philosophical arguments for separation of church and state in favor of Judeo-Christian influences on the nation’s founding. Texas gubernatorial candidate Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, has asked that Governor Rick Perry delay a May vote finalizing the changes so a new board can take up the matter fresh after the November election. One of the board’s most conservative members lost in the March primary, while another declined to seek re-election, meaning at least those two members will be replaced.
The proposed changes are said to have national impact because textbook companies are influenced by their largest markets, of which the Texas public schools are one.
The most discussed change is the board’s suggested removal of Thomas Jefferson from a high school world history standard. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released a statement on March 19 clarifying the change and assuring Texans that Jefferson will remain in the overall social studies curriculum.
The aforementioned disputed section of the curriculum standards, as prepared by SBOE Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) Review Committees on July 31, 2009 originally read:
“Explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750-present.”
SBOE members, most of whom are Republicans, voted 10-5 along party lines to change the aforementioned standard to read, “Explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.”
San Marcos Local News solicited comment from professional educators and school district officials regarding the aforementioned change.
San Marcos CISD Superintendent Patty Shafer: “You would think that they would use the recommendations that have been given to them, and obviously, it appears they didn’t.”
Texas State Professor of Political Science Bob Gorman: “Thomas Aquinas looms as the giant of philosophy in the late Middle Ages, and is surely worthy of inclusion in the standards. Calvin was an important reformation figure. Jefferson is worthy of keeping as an important American founder, whose thought in regard to natural law principles, it should be noted, was influenced by Aquinas and other philosophers of the late Middle Ages.”
Texas State Assistant Professor of History Jeffrey Mauck: “John Calvin? I can’t get college students to understand his ideas. Frankly, many of my students have no idea what the word “communism” means and no knowledge of the Cold War. So, perhaps that should come before Calvin.”
San Marcos CISD Trustees President Judy Allen: “I don’t think I’m the one qualified to say who should be in there and who’s not. If I’m not an expert in social studies and history, I shouldn’t be making that decision.”
Texas State Associate Professor of Political Science Professor William DeSoto: “One hopes that the SBOE decision was reached because board members concluded that Jefferson would be adequately covered in American history courses and not because he was generally more secular than some of the other founders and because he first used the term ‘separation of church and state.'”
SBOE District 5 Member and candidate Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio), who represents Hays County on the board: “(Thomas Jefferson is) one of the most-mentioned persons in the first grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, high school history and government classes … He’s probably the number one most mentioned person out of all the history standards …There’s one section on world history about philosophers, and someone tried to put him in philosophy. Well, Thomas Jefferson was not one of the philosophers. He wasn’t like Plato and Aristotle … Jefferson was a student of some of the philosophies … but he’s definitely secure in American history, and he should be.”
SBOE District 5 candidate Rebecca Bell-Metereau (D-San Marcos), who is running against Mercer in November: “The extremists on the board want to water down the intent and strength of Enlightenment concepts and to minimize Jefferson’s crucial role as an Enlightenment thinker. They do not agree with the separation of church and state, and they are no great fans of the scientific or rational worldviews that characterize Enlightenment thought and its later incarnations. Therefore, they are whittling down Jefferson’s spot in the curriculum in every way they can.”
Texas State Department of History Chair and Professor, and Social Studies TEKS Expert Reviewer J. F. de la Teja: “Any explanation of the ‘writings’ of various figures will have to deal with the Enlightenment. To the degree that the political thinking that resulted in the American Revolution was based on a long line of political philosophers, I don’t have a problem with the inclusion of Aquinas, Calvin, and Blackstone — those were examples. I’m sure the government books will also refer to Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Jefferson, Hamilton, Roseau, and Montesquieu — other important examples.”
Texas State Professor of Political Science Kenneth Grasso: “…It is difficult to comment without any context, but I don’t think the removal of a reference to ‘Enlightenment ideas’ is per se problematic. The Enlightenment is only one influence on the American founding/modern democracy, and mention of other thinkers and currents which played a role — including the role played by Christian thought — seems a simple matter of fairness.”
SBOE made more than 100 amendments to the standards during a three-day session in March, during which time board members requested input from experts once or twice during that period, according to TEA spokesperson Suzanne Marchman. SBOE may designate up to seven expert reviewers, each of whom must receive a nomination from at least two board members. SBOE members nominate educators, parents, business and industry representatives, and employers to the TEKS Review Committees.
TEA staff are working to incorporate SBOE’s amendments to the TEKS Review Committees’ work in the draft standards. TEA staff will probably publish the draft standards on the agency’s website and in the Texas Register by mid-April, and a 30-day public comment period will follow, after which SBOE will hold a public hearing and take a final vote on the social studies curriculum standards.
San Marcos Local News solicited comments from and posed questions to professional educators, school district officials, and SBOE candidates regarding some of the other proposed changes approved by SBOE.
During the SBOE deliberations in March, board member Mavis Knight offered the following amendment, which read, “Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” The amendment failed along party lines. SBOE District 10 member Cynthia Dunbar (R-Richmond), who is not seeking another term, said the founders did not intend to have separation of church and state in America.
Bell-Metereau: “Ms. Dunbar is incorrect. She needs to re-read Jefferson’s letters and the Constitution itself. Moreover, she needs to take the advice of the (TEKS) review committee, whose members specialize in history and social studies.”
Mercer: “I can’t remember that amendment … I can’t remember which debate it was, but we discussed the fact that (James) Madison said people feared that one denomination or two — he said the Anglican Church and the Episcopalian Church might combine and form one denomination and compel everyone else to that denomination.”
San Marcos CISD Trustees Vice President Jesse Ponce: “The country was founded on God, and that’s the reason we’ve been so successful. And now the things that we’re seeing now as they try to separate it, or keep God out, we’re seeing so many more difficulties and struggles. I think if you take that out — they think it’s bad now, I think it’s just going to keep getting worse. That’s what the whole country is based on … the ones that want to have God taken out are the ones that unfortunately speak out (the most) and are always up front and speaking their minds.”
Gorman: “On religion and the First Amendment, it is important to know, historically, that the founders definitely were not seeking to abridge freedom of religious expression by including the establishment clause, but rather the latter was a subordinate mechanism for ensuring religious freedom. The founders were not articulating a theory of separation of church and state. That idea is a more recent concoction which erroneously reads the establishment clause as intended to establish freedom from religion, which was not the purpose of the founders.”
de la Teja: “That amendment and the response are typical of the two popular extremes of the argument over the role of religion in government. The disestablishment clause in the Constitution has been increasingly interpreted over the last century in a progressively more comprehensive way. In other words, in order to protect the religious rights (including the right to no religion at all) of all citizens, then government should not be seen as endorsing any one religious view. Does that mean that partnerships between government and religious groups are not possible? Of course not. They take place all the time. In fact, we have a prime example in San Antonio, where the Missions National Park is a partnership between the Department of Interior and the Diocese of San Antonio. School districts routinely rent out their buildings for church services. Religiously-affiliated schools routinely seek and receive grants and participate in government programs. In fact, student led, voluntary prayer is allowed in schools. Our money says “In God We Trust.” Where the courts have been drawing the line is at the government participating in religious activity or seeming to favor one religion over others.”
Grasso: “I think the board’s decision to avoid the use of the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ to designate the intentions of the founders was a wise one. The term ‘separation of church and state’ appears nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Nor did it figure in the debates in the First Congress and state legislatures over what became the First Amendment. It was first employed by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, and whether it accurately conveys the meaning of the First Amendment is today a topic of heated debate among scholars. My view, for what is worth, is that it does not. The use of this phrase in textbooks is problematic both because it one, reads Jefferson’s theory of church-state relations into the First Amendment, and two, (it) implicitly embraces a controversial interpretation of the meaning of the First Amendment. If it (were) up me, I’d recommend that the books speak of the First Amendment as prohibiting ‘an establishment of religion’ by the federal government rather than establishing a separation of church and state. This is closer to the actual language of the First Amendment and avoids implicitly embracing a debatable interpretation of the founders’ intentions. It also, in my view, more accurately conveys the founders’ intentions.”
In another proposed standards revision, SBOE changed the word “imperialism” to “expansionism” in a United States history course standard about U.S. acquisition of overseas territories in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Mauck: “As far as ‘expansionism,’ it can be used, as well as ‘imperialism.’ I prefer to use both, depending on the situation. I see the Louisiana Purchase as part of expansionism, but the Spanish-American War as imperialism.”
de la Teja: “The unease of some board members with the term ‘imperialism’ cannot hide the fact that the U.S. entered into the practice of acquiring territory through participation in the international rivalry for possessions. Although Cuba was allowed its autonomy, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and various other Pacific islands were taken from Spain and kept, some to this very day, by the U.S. It was American business interests who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and negotiated the islands’ transfer to the U.S. Call it ‘expansionism,’ but the description of the process will make clear that the U.S. was participating in the international colonial expansion of Western powers. And this answer does not take into account the continental expansion of the U.S. at the expense of Spain in the Southeast and Mexico in the Southwest.”
Grasso: “On the face of it, their refusal to employ the term ‘imperialism’ here strikes me as strange, but I don’t know enough about the context to say anything definitive.”
SBOE removed a reference to propaganda as a factor in the U.S. entry into World War I.
de la Teja: “Well, although it was removed, the expectation does not preclude the discussion of propaganda. While some members of the board may feel uncomfortable with the term ‘propaganda,’ there is a long history of books on the subject dealing with the role of propaganda — marketing, if you will — in the way the war was presented to the American public.”
Bell-Metereau: “Again, the board should have followed the review committee’s original advice. It is a mistake to think that the United States has never used propaganda. Every nation uses propaganda, and historians try to sort out what is an accurate portrayal of the facts of history. The board should re-examine the definition of propaganda.”
The SBOE proposes removing Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, from a third grade list of “historical and contemporary figures who have exemplified good citizenship.” Some board members said Huerta is not a good role model for third-graders because she is a socialist.
Mercer: “I voted against her, but then I voted for the other people — one was Raul Gonzalez. Raul Gonzalez is the first Hispanic appointed in an elected a statewide office, the Texas Supreme Court. And then we voted for, and I nominated, and we won, Philip Bazaar. He was the first Hispanic to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. He won that in the Civil War. The point being that the other side wanted Dolores Huerta as a woman, but she’s a member of the Socialist Party. And the section was on examples of good citizenship for our kids to follow.”
Bell-Metereau: “Figures should be studied for their contributions to society, not for political affiliations.”
SBOE voted to retain use of “BC” and “AD” rather than “BCE” and “CE” in history classes.
Mercer: “Why change? We’ve always had it this way. Why change every book to fit that because somebody considers that now the politically-correct way to date? Well, every book we have that the kids see use BC and AD … Why change? The kids got so much to learn, is it worthwhile changing the time convention too? There was no compelling argument to change from BC/AD to this new new dating mechanism … To have both of them in there just become very confusing for not just the kids, but educators, also.”
Gorman: “The recent tendency to use CE and BCE is a politically-correct modern preoccupation. Western Civilization is Christian in its origin and even the calendar (whether the Gregorian or the prior Julian) we use is deeply embedded in decisions by Christian emperors and the Church. Thus the use of BC and AD have been perfectly acceptable for centuries, and remain so for those not preoccupied with political correctness.”
de la Teja: “Well, no big deal. BC and AD have had a secular meaning in that they are used as stand-alone references in the same way that ‘a.m.’ and ‘p.m.’ are used. Dating systems are arbitrary to begin with and BCE/CE, which refer to ‘Common Era,’ merely mask the fact that they are operating on the same dating scheme as BC and AD.”
Grasso: “I don’t see a problem here. The effort to replace BC and AD with BCE and CE is a classic case of political correctness and another illustration of the anti-religious bias that pervades certain segments of American society.”
San Marcos Local News: “Is SBOE adequately using the advice of experts in its current deliberations and actions regarding social studies and world history curriculum standards?”
Bell-Metereau: “No, they are stuck in the 1950s.”
Mercer: “We’ve had several hearings for over a year now. Since last May, we started having hearings and experts, since the first hearing, the first reading. And the beauty of Texas, the way we do things, is that within two weeks of the first meeting, they’ll post online all the … standards. And for 30 days, all 22 million Texans can go online — anybody — experts and educators, parents. Anybody can go online and look at the standards and make comments on them. In May, we come back … and we have all the comments … and we say, ‘Are there any amendments because of those comments?’ So it’s part of the process. It started with all the committees and all the hearings we had in September and November, January and March.”
Allen: “If you take a look at some of those people in those positions and the decisions they’re making, I think they’re not listening to the experts … I’m really disappointed in some of those people that have been elected and some of the decisions they’ve made over the last several years. And I think that there’s a lot more interest to get some of those people off of there … They spent an awful lot of time talking about Creationism and Intelligent Design (during the science TEKS revisions). There’s not one test question on that.”
de la Teja: “The SBOE is the responsible elected group. The statute under which they operate makes the board responsible for curriculum standards, not curriculum itself. Given that the board members are made responsible, and that they get to ask for the help they want, the question of whether or not they are using advice from experts adequately is a political question. In my opinion, the board would be better served if it merely accepted or rejected the work of the writing committees, which would have at their disposal a pre-approved group of content experts, but that’s not the way it works.”
Grasso: “At least some of the news accounts I’ve read mentioned that the board had consulted some scholars, including Dr. Daniel Dreisbach of American University in (Washington) DC. I know Professor Dreisbach personally and am familiar with his work. He is one of the most eminent authorities on church/state and religion/society in early American history, and one of the very best people to seek advice from on matters relating to these subjects.”
Texas State Department of Curriculum & Instruction Chair and Associate Professor Patrice Werner: “In the social studies, there are many viewpoints that are valid. History, for example, is based on people’s interpretations of events, and since all humans carry some kind of bias, there will always be a degree of bias in descriptions of historical events. This is why … higher level skills (are) so important. Students should be able to digest varying opinions and accounts and use that knowledge for wise decision-making as citizens. In the adoption of these standards, voices of multiple educational and community stakeholders matter. We want parents, guardians, and community members to know that they can respond to the chosen experts and other issues by how they vote, since the SBOE is an elected body.
San Marcos Local News: “Are students in Texas, in general, receiving an optimal education? If all or some are not receiving an optimal education, what, in your professional opinion, needs to change at the state and/or local level?
de la Teja: “Well, I’m not a proponent of the kind of standardized testing on which the state and federal governments are currently relying to assess the success of schools. Because of the pressures on superintendents, principals, teachers — yes, school districts — to show ‘improvement’ on these tests, not enough students are getting the kind of depth of knowledge, particularly in the social studies, that I think are important to making good citizens. In those grades where there is no testing in history — for instance, in seventh grade — students are often pulled from Texas history class to practice for standardized tests in reading and math. Reading and math are important, but they are not the sole constituents of an adequate, much less a well-rounded, education. Accountability by multiple choice testing is a poor substitute for true learning.”
Grasso: “As to whether K-12 students in Texas receive an ‘optimal education,’ I think there are very few students in America who receive such an education. Our education system is broken and requires fundamental reform. A first step toward such reform would be the establishment of a system of vouchers and tax credits, making possible authentic school choice.”
Werner: “In a state as large and diverse as Texas, there is always work to be done. Our students range from the very wealthy to the homeless and represent virtually all races, ethnicities, and countries of the world. We are still figuring out how provide educational opportunity for everyone, not just the privileged. The best possible outcome of the recent controversy regarding the SBOE would be that people continue talking about, caring about, and voting for high quality education for all students in this state, including getting to know their SBOE representative.”
Gorman: “About ten years ago, I did a formal review of social studies textbooks for a public policy institute and I was appalled at the number of factual errors, errors of interpretation and the reigning political correctness that led to large gaps in the learning of history and a lack of appreciation regarding the importance of religious and subsidiary associations in the development and transmission of culture … I am concerned about the quality of education in all public school settings. Historical ignorance is rife among public high school students across the land, and, in part, this has been a result of the political processes that have been in use to determine curriculum and to ensure that every political faction has its voice and representation for multicultural purposes in ways that crowd out of the syllabus critical persons, ideas, historical trends, etc. Any tinkering done at the recent meetings is unlikely really to have much effect on this much larger problem. All of this is one reason why, over the past five years, I have been working to establish the John Paul II Catholic High School, as a great books, integrated humanities curriculum from the ground up. We started this year with a freshman class, and will have a full campus with about 200 students in a few years. Students at this school will have been exposed in a rigorous fashion to the full treasury of knowledge imbedded in the Western tradition, as well as the tools to understand global cultural trends. Sometimes, you just need to scrap everything and start over.”
San Marcos Local News: “Should State Board of Education members be elected by everyone or just by educators or specialists?”
Shafer: “You’re asking me to put my foot out there, aren’t you? I think some of those things should be considered, let me put it that way.”
Bell-Metereau: “The board should be educated by everyone, and I hope that people educate themselves about the issues, record of accomplishments, and qualifications of candidates.”
Mercer: “To say that the state board should all be educators in the field — I’m not sure, because some of the problems we had most recently were — I can tell you that conservative educators have told us in hearings that they’ve been shut out. And so that the other party, at meetings, are that strong and able to shut out conservative educators kind of concerns me. The law is pretty clear the state board should be elected … The people, they want an elected state board, they do not want an appointed state board, and the people like a mix. And we do get to hear the experts. We do get to appoint experts and hear what they have to say. So I definitely support an elected state board because elected people are accountable to the people, as I am. And those who are appointed, if they’re appointed by educators, well, guess what — if they’re appointed, they’re not accountable to the voters. And that’s why we have an elected board, is we want people accountable to the voters.”
Allen: “Well, I sure think people don’t pay attention to — when you go out and vote, you might make a rational decision, maybe — which is questionable — about the top offices. But by the time you get down to state board of education, you don’t have any clue. You’re voting based on whether they’re Democratic or Republican without any knowledge of their background.”
San Marcos Local News: “Why teach kids history?”
Bell-Metereau: “History provides us an understanding of our world, both where we’ve been and where we may be headed in the future. It is the cultural heritage of our nation and of the world at large.”
Mercer: “Well, because that’s how you learn. History is a story. It’s taught in sequence because you learn how things happen. Like America — why we’re still — why so many other countries have gone through 30 or 40 different governments already and we’re still here. History is a story and you have to understand the people … the time, the culture, what was happening then and what was the intent — like of the Constitution. What was the intent in 1789 of the Second Constitutional Convention, what were they looking for in the Bill of Rights, why was there a Bill of Rights? … You learn this history of who you are. It’s important to know who you are, where you came from.”
San Marcos Local News: “Why teach kids social studies?”
Bell-Metereau: “Social studies, including psychology and sociology, offer methods for understanding human behavior and interaction. The various branches of social studies offer both personal and public value, because they help our society operate in a rational, deliberative way that will benefit everyone.”
Mercer: “In every country, you want to know why your country is different. In our case, we want to talk about our free market system versus socialism, versus communism, versus — what works and what doesn’t. Why we’re different. In our country, we talk about exceptionalism, why people still come here, why we’re still called ‘the land of opportunity,’ why people throughout the world still want to leave their country and come here. We’re a country where you can actually still own property. You can have your own business. Where all kids can go to school. So, it’s important that we study history, that we have social studies to understand who we are as Americans. And there’s also something called comparative studies, where we compare our freedoms, our free enterprise system, to other countries, what they have.”Email | Print