Michael Soto is the Democratic Party candidate for the State Board of Education in District 3, which covers a 13-county area from Bexar County and San Antonio to Hidalgo County and the Texas-Mexico border. He was born in Corpus Christi and raised in McAllen and Brownsville, where he attended public schools throughout his youth. He received a B.A. degree in Modern Thought & Literature from Stanford University and a Ph.D. degree in English & American Literature & Language from Harvard University. Since 1999 he has served on the faculty at Trinity University in San Antonio, where he is presently associate professor of English and director of the McNair Scholars Program. He previously served as director of the African American studies program and chair of the University Curriculum Council at Trinity. Dr. Soto's research and teaching focus on twentieth-century American literature and cultural history. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on topics within his field. He and his wife, Celina Pena, are the parents of two boys: Alejo, a first-grader in the San Antonio ISD, and newborn Americo, SAISD class of 2028.
I agree with the consensus emerging that the proposed social studies standards distort American history and society to advance a lopsided agenda, often at the expense of adequate and appropriate representation of America’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. This is especially troubling to me because my son belongs to the group of students—Texas first graders—who are the first Latino-majority cohort in Texas public school history. But let me highlight just one of the controversial standards because its potential adoption illustrates vexing problems that pervade the State Board of Education’s (SBOE) standards revision process.
I wish to address the “American exceptionalism” standard, which falls under the “U.S. History since 1877” course that high school students must pass to graduate. The specific standard requires that the student—including my older son, when he takes the course sometime around 2019—“understands the concept of American exceptionalism.” This requirement was added by SBOE member Don McLeroy to the seemingly endless roster of amendments during the January SBOE meeting (but not voted on until March).
“Exceptionalism”—the idea, to quote the proposed standard, that “American values are different and unique from those of other nations”—is an important concept in American intellectual history; in fact, I’ve written about and discussed the concept numerous times because it is inseparable from the varieties of cultural nationalism that shaped the modernist movements that I study and teach. But the social studies standards mishandle the concept in ways that leave me deeply concerned for many reasons.
My first concern: The concept belongs more to antebellum American history, and in particular to colonial and early national history, than to the post-Reconstruction period where the amendment placed it. Even the primary text referenced to illustrate American exceptionalism—Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840)—is a product of the early nineteenth century. I can excuse this period misplacement, though, because antebellum and early national history are covered in the middle school Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS); exceptionalism is a concept that is too difficult to handle at that early age (One version of American exceptionalism—that offered most influentially by Frederick Jackson Turner—obviously informs how the middle school TEKS approaches westward expansion during the antebellum era).
My second concern: The standard for “American exceptionalism” oversimplifies Tocqueville’s seminal work. The standard claims that Tocqueville identifies (and I quote again) “five values crucial to America’s success as a constitutional republic: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” It's worth pointing out that the words “egalitarianism,” “populism,” and “laissez-faire” do not appear in Democracy in America; the latter French phrase can’t even be found in the original French edition of the book. Instead, the five values are lifted from Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996) in a manner that’s not altogether fair to Lipset. Lipset distills these five values from a wide array of thinkers, not just from Tocqueville. The standard is thus a product of shoddy scholarship.
My third concern: It’s no mystery why one might offer an oversimplistic version of Tocqueville. Tocqueville’s own idiosyncratic views on religion—he believed, for example, that democracy inclines individuals toward pantheism—aren’t in tune with the religious right’s coded language, in which the phrase “American exceptionalism” conjures America’s Christian mission, the view that the United States is the “city on a hill” referenced in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:15). Here, too, history tells a much more complicated story than the social studies TEKS could ever hope to illuminate.
The “city on a hill” metaphor was first applied to this continent in 1630 by Puritan minister John Winthrop as he and his flock sailed to America aboard the Arbella. “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill,” Winthrop preached to his shipmates. “The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” The “work” that Winthrop espouses throughout the sermon is nothing less than a sharp repudiation of English mercantilism and an embrace of a New English communism. Yes, Winthrop was a small “c” communist; his “Model of Christian Charity” sermon reads the Bible in a manner that anticipates Marx’s “from each … to each” sloganeering: “thou must give [thy brother] according to his necessity,” Winthrop instructs, “rather then lend him as he requires.”
Am I proposing, then, that Texas high school students learn about the communist strand in our nation’s colonial history? Certainly not. To do so would be to make far too much of an isolated (though admittedly important) sermon. To do so would be to grind an ideological axe at the expense of historical truth. To do so would be to play politics with our kids’ education. To do so is unacceptable to me both as a college professor and as a dad.
My fourth concern: As a Texan, I’m embarrassed to say that the “American exceptionalism” standard is not just a shoddy misrepresentation of Tocqueville; this part of the standard was plagiarized from a UCLA Graduate School of Education website, a source that conflates Tocqueville and Lipset in potentially confusing ways. And sadly, other parts of the “American exceptionalism” standard were lifted almost verbatim from Wikipedia. If one of my Trinity University students handed in this work, he or she would receive a D for the quality of ideas and an F for academic dishonesty. Let me be absolutely clear for the public record: The social studies TEKS are plagiarized work. Can we all agree that Texas kids deserve better than this? Shouldn’t the State Board of Education be held to a higher standard?
Let’s Get Things Right
With this in mind, I must insist that Chairperson Lowe postpone a final vote on the social studies TEKS until Commissioner Scott and Texas Education Agency staff have fully vetted the integrity of the standards. I must also insist that Gov. Perry call on the SBOE to postpone a final vote until all Texans have a social studies curriculum that they can believe in. Anything less would be to aid and abet intellectual property theft; anything less would be to sell out Texas students. If Gov. Perry is unwilling to stand up for Texas school kids, then I hope Texas voters send a clear message this November: Enough is enough.
A Flawed Process
This flawed “American exceptionalism” standard is emblematic of the flawed process that led to a virtual encyclopedia of crassly politicized, short-sighted propaganda posing as history. Let me conclude by highlighting where this process has gone wrong.
The social studies TEKS are simply too long, too caught up in nit-picky details about what should be taught at a given point along a child’s thirteen-year primary and secondary school experience. At 149 pages, the TEKS is longer than many of the books that will emerge from its design. It’s almost comical that the standards encourage teachers to share “a variety of rich primary and secondary source material such as biographies, autobiographies, landmark cases of the U.S. Supreme Court, novels, speeches, letters, diaries, poetry, songs, and artworks.” Let’s face it: Teachers know that they’ll be rewarded for cramming a list of names and dates in preparation for a high-stakes test, and they know that too often they’re punished for actually teaching, for providing the kind of challenging and inspiring lessons that transformed this first-generation college student into a college professor.
The hardworking committees who put together the original TEKS drafts—mostly teachers and other content experts appointed by SBOE members—knew full well that their work would be retooled to score political points once the draft reached the SBOE. That’s why they crammed the document so full of thick detail to begin with: They didn’t trust SBOE members to leave the curriculum in the capable hands of classroom educators. And, as we’ve heard all too often, enough SBOE members don’t trust teachers to do what teachers are trained to do, what they’ve devoted their professional careers to: Preparing kids for success in school, at work, and at life. The scores of amendments—including amendments stitched together on a wing and a prayer and a sixty-second Google search—reveal a profound lack of trust in public school teachers and, I can only presume, in college professors like me, who are tasked with preparing future generations of classroom teachers.
Putting Texas Kids First
For better and for worse, the world has taken notice. The Texas SBOE has drawn ire, derision, and laughter—sometimes unfairly, sometimes well-deserved—from all corners of the United States. A profound and pressing question is this: How can we restore trust in a process that is supposed to be about preparing Texas students for college and career success? What will it take before we reach a point where we can leave our kids’ education where it belongs: In the hands of professional educators who know the real needs of their community, be it an urban, inner-city school in San Antonio or a small campus in rural Tilden.
Should I be elected to serve on the SBOE, I will do all that I can to bring credibility to the standards revision process. I’ll reach out—as I have throughout this campaign—to parents, teachers, and students so that their voices inform this crucial conversation about the public school curriculum. I’ll confer with Texas Education Agency staff and textbook publishers to ensure that Texas school kids have access to the very best textbooks available. And I’ll look forward to working with members of this Caucus and the full Texas legislature to put Texas kids first.
HNN Special: Scholars Assess the Proposed Texas Social Studies Standards
- Keith A. Erekson: Introduction to the Feature
- Michael Soto: Plagiarized Work
- Jesús F. de la Teja: An Almost Impossibly Large Set of Standards Produced by a Problematic Process
- Emilio Zamora: A Pattern of Neglect and a Missed Opportunity
- Iliana Alanís: A Culturally Irrelevant History of"Melodramatic Minutiae"
- Keith A. Erekson: An Overstuffed Laundry List that Treats Seniors like Kindergartners
- Roberto R. Calderón: A Sanitized History
- Kirsten Gardner: An Incomplete Version of the Past that Silences Important Struggles
- John Willingham: The God in Whom We Should Trust
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