In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right

Historians in the News

The social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education, which will put a conservative stamp on textbooks, was received less as a pedagogical document than as the latest provocation in America’s seemingly endless culture wars.

“Why Is Texas Afraid of Thomas Jefferson?” the History News Network asked, referring to the board’s recommendation that Jefferson, who coined the expression “separation of church and state,” be struck from the list of world thinkers who inspired 18th- and 19th-century revolutions.

Other critics were more direct: “Dear Texas: Please shut up. Sincerely, History,” was the headline of an online column for The San Francisco Chronicle.

This reaction wasn’t altogether surprising. The board’s wrangling over the curriculum had been a spectacle for months, not least because its disputes mirrored those taking place across the nation. In mid-September, citizens showed up with firearms at tumultuous town hall meetings on health care reform, and the Tea Party movement emerged as the vehicle of conservative insurgents....

In reality, this controversy is the latest version of a debate that reaches back many decades and is perhaps essential in a heterogeneous democracy whose identity has long been in flux....

In 1968, when Harvard students demanded a black studies program, “Faculty hawks warned of the fall of Harvard, and even civilization, as they knew it,” as Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller note in “Making Harvard Modern.”

Soon an ever widening range of subjects, from gay studies to feminist legal theory and anthropology, were added, in keeping with the dictates of identity politics. Some of this thinking eventually filtered to grade schools, with children now celebrating Kwanzaa and composing essays, year after year, on the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Many of the changes were liberating, but some were narrowing and erroneous — for instance the theories espoused by Leonard Jeffries Jr., who, as head of City College’s black studies department in the 1980s, lectured on the differences between African “sun people” and European “ice people.”...

Though its authors say the Texas curriculum reinforces American traditions, it may instead reflect the conservative variant of identity politics, and this could invite a similar backlash.

To be fair, some of the board’s recommendations aren’t controversial. Most scholars of the cold war, left and right, think that the Venona documents — communications that record the activities of Americans who secretly spied for the Soviet Union — illuminate the anti-Communist investigations of the McCarthy period. And historians of the conservative movement will agree that Rush Limbaugh and Phyllis Schlafly are worth learning about, as are the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association....

It is telling, too, that it is secondary-school children — not, as in the past, college students — whose minds are being fought over today on such a scale. This suggests that after so many years of increasingly bitter polarization, Americans stand on the brink of a collective identity crisis and no longer share a set of common ideas about the true character of the country and the true meaning of democracy.

In “The American Political Tradition,” published in 1948, the historian Richard Hofstadter suggested that the fad for popular history at the time was evidence of “national nostalgia” — an effort not to understand the past, but rather to evade the present. “This quest for the American past is carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis,” he surmised.

As it happens, a good deal of contemporary popular history is more critical than in Mr. Hofstadter’s day. But it is presented through an ever-narrowing aperture.

The late Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” depicts the United States as an epic of oppression in which the privileged abuse the downtrodden. Conversely, “A Patriot’s History of the United States,” by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, describes the New Deal as a calamity that wreaked havoc on the American economy....

Today it is not regional or ethnic identity, but ideological commitment that threatens to submerge larger “national myths.” But one thing remains unchanged from 50 or 60 years ago. As Americans struggle to see where they are going, they continue to gaze fondly at the past — and to see in it what they like.

Read entire article at NYT

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Randll Reese Besch - 3/29/2010

What happened and how it affected everyone from the Indians to the black slaves to the white millionaire barons. Then let us sort it out. No political favorites.