Those Awful Texas Social Studies Standards • And What About Yours?
By Bill Bigelow
You’ve probably read the horror stories coming out of Texas about their social studies standards. In March, the Texas board of education gave preliminary approval to new standards that, according to the New York Times, “will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government, and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.” The Texas board of education has rehabilitated Sen. Joe McCarthy, erased mention of the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights declaration, and required that the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis be taught alongside Lincoln’s inaugural. And that’s just a taste of more than 100 amendments that Republicans have made to the 120-page social studies curriculum standards.
No doubt, the victory of conservative ideologues on the Texas board of education is troubling and worth the attention it’s getting. With 4.7 million students, the Texas market is huge and exerts a powerful influence on the whole textbook industry. As Fritz Fischer, chair of the National Council for History Education, told the Washington Post, “The books that are altered to fit the standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they’ll end up in other classrooms.”
But all this Texas bashing implies that standards everywhere else are good and fair and true. In fact, other states’ social studies standards have their own conservative biases (and occasional silliness) and deserve the same critical scrutiny that Texas’ new standards are receiving. Other states may not celebrate Jefferson Davis, but neither do they encourage teachers to equip students with the historical background and analytical tools that they’ll need to understand and address today’s social and environmental crises.
Take my own blue state of Oregon. This is no bastion of conservatism. We have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature; both U.S. senators are Democrats, as are four of our five U.S. representatives. But our social studies standards are profoundly conservative—in big and little ways. There is no recognition of the social emergency that we confront: a deeply unequal and unsustainable world, hurtling toward an ecological crisis without parallel in human history. The standards portray U.S. society as fundamentally harmonious, with laws designed to promote fairness and progress. Today’s wars don’t exist. Nor does hunger or poverty.
The first social studies benchmark in Oregon’s standards requires that 3rd graders begin a nationalistic curricular journey as they learn to “identify essential ideas and values expressed in national symbols, heroes, and patriotic songs of the United States.” By the time these 3rd graders reach high school they’ll “understand how laws are developed and applied to provide order, set limits, protect basic rights, and promote the common good.”
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