Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Texas Changing its Social Studies Standards

A few people have asked me about my views on this. There's an article here at NPR and another one here at Salon. But what do I think?

All State Standards Influence Textbooks in Some Fashion
I think it's a little disingenuous to say that Texas is the only state where a big central committee sets standards that every K-12 school district has to follow, because I've been asked many, many times to write or edit social studies textbook material to conform to statewide standards in other states, including California, Florida, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, etc.

Think of it this way: you can say that a district is free to adopt whatever books its wants to teach the curriculum. But if the state has a standardized test, and most states do, then the curriculum had better prepare kids for that test. So textbooks are influenced by the tests. And what do you think influences the questions that are put on those tests? The state standards. Plus, publishers don't like to take risks. They will typically look at sticking to the official standards for a state as being the path of least resistance in terms of entering the market. It's also an easier way to gather information; in this economy, everything is being cut, and you don't have solid feedback on the desires of every school district. Not that you'd act upon it anyway, because . . .

Being Big Matters More Than Being Right

It is absolutely true that changes made in Texas influence what happens in the rest of the country. Not because other states care so much what Texas does, but because multiple publishers will compete for the Texas market and write books to fit its standards. They ain't going to do that for Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, etc. The guy is being a little generous to the textbook industry, I think, in terms of how modular it really is. They'll do a lot of supplemental ancillaries and handbooks geared to specific smaller states, but big, five hundred page four color hardcover books at a price those districts can afford? Good luck!

Those Who Forget History Are Going to Get Excited by the Same Old Shit
, Or The Conservative Two Step in Texas Has Been Going on for Over a Decade Now
All the biz stuff aside, the Texas Essential Knowledge Skills, which were followed up by some other acronym and are now at risk of being replaced by this latest wave of crap: the Texas educational standards have always skewed conservative. Fifteen years ago they were complaining about liberal bias and working to institute a bunch of changes. I had to rewrite and edit two unique textbook chapters created just for Texas on the Civil War and Reconstruction because their points of emphasis were so damned different from every other major market in the country.

Now they want to put Jefferson Davis's inaugural address next to Abraham Lincoln's address as if the two were equivalent in quality, historical significance, or even impact at the time they were delivered. You know what that reminds me of? Twelve years ago I had to add a bunch of material, including primary documents, on the Anti-Federalists to counterbalance the discussion of the Federalist Papers. Why? Because the Anti-Federalists were opposed to a "big federal government" and the Texas conservatives wanted the seeds of that stuff planted very, very early in the discussion of U.S. history.

As far as emphasizing free markets, I'm not sure what the hell else they could put in there to make it clearer that in America we believe that free markets are good and everything else is bad, because they wanted that stuff stuck into the colonial history as well, in spite of the fact that we didn't have a damn free market at the time, we had a mercantilist system. So that ship has already sailed as well.

Bringing It Up To Date
In fact, as far as I can tell the main thrust of this latest conservative push is to bring their arguments into the history of the twentieth century, reinterpreting the New Deal (and I recall there were standards downplaying that ten years ago as well), downplaying the civil rights movement, and trying to boost Reagan to Mt. Rushmore status. That's getting more attention now because people remember that shit happening and perhaps the conservative agenda strikes some of them as a little full of crap. But I see it as all part of an ongoing process that starting revising colonial U.S. history and then sweeping forward in time.

Communities, Parents and Teachers
Ultimately it will come down more to the teachers and the communities they teach in as far as how the textbooks get interpreted. You can have all the inclusive history you like in a book, but if the teachers poo-poo it and nobody is ever tested on it, it tends to go in one ear and out the other or never to be read at all. Same thing with the conservative history that tries to exclude mention of non-white men.

Some say that if you don't teach your kids to ask questions, they'll accept whatever they are told. I think that if they don't ask questions, they will believe whatever their community believes. And they're likely to believe it anyway. Texas has a lot of conservatives dominating public politics and discourse, though they spend a lot of time complaining about liberals, which is like complaining that the guy you just kicked the shit out of is bleeding on your boot.

Will It Even Matter? (It's the Economy, Stupid)
The interesting thing to me that doesn't seem to be getting mentioned is, changing the standards does absolutely nothing until (a) you implement tests to pressure teachers to enforce those standards and (b) you actually buy new textbooks with the revisionist history in them. The mandated changes in content don't just magically whisper themselves into the hearts and minds of students and teachers.

I can tell you as a freelancer that both of those processes have ground to a halt over the past year and a half due to state budget cuts. So until the money actually gets disbursed and districts actually spend it on ordering new books and somebody writes the new books and the new tests, this is all smoke and posturing. And this has to happen outside of Texas as well for the change to have the national effect. You know how No Child Left Behind was an unfunded mandate?

Ahistorical History
As a historian, my sad experience is that for people who aren't interested in putting some effort into studying the past and thinking about it, history is little more than a cultural product, like some sort of eternal brand you wear that carries with it a preconceived set of associated values. I'm an American, so by definition I can't be an imperialist, democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked together in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and I live in a melting pot where every real American assimilates. Facts and logic and consistent categorizations don't enter into it, just the story we want to tell. And please make it simple. We would like people to be all good or all bad, brave captains of industry or despicable oppressors of the working class, bloodthirsty savages or noble primitives. An Andrew Carnegie who got rich by creating a monopoly that would be illegal today and using violence against workers who didn't toe the line but then became a notable philanthropist isn't something we're comfortable with. Thomas Jefferson the brilliant philosopher and writer and Jefferson the slaveholder with illegitimate children is a problem, so we play up whichever story suits our interests.

One of the ludicrous qualities of this attitude is that it tends to fix history, as though the character of America never changed over time. If we are a free market society today, we must have always been a free market society, say the conservatives. If we value diversity today then we must have always valued diversity, say the liberals.

And the converse applies at times as well, at least for conservatives. Some deeply Christian people settled in a particular colony, and most people on the whole were more religious back then than they are today, so Christian religion is obviously a cornerstone of our federal government, even though the Founders didn't bother to make that explicit in their documents and actually argued against it. We should be now like we were then if we want to be real Americans. (Of course, if we want to be sticklers that would mean that Catholics and Quakers are persona non grata in our wonderful old-school America, because they were pretty widely disliked back then in spite of being Christian. Shhh.)

I find it kind of sadly amusing that the zealots on each side can't stop themselves from trying to change the presentation of our history. I'm more of a liberal than a conservative to be sure, but I've had moments where I had to slap my head at some requests from the left-wing to frame history the way they wanted. (Such as the request to please add a biography of a significant contemporary Hispanic to the chapter on the American Civil War.)

So in the end, history itself wins, because history is about change over time, about cycles, about people adapting or refusing to adapt to the change around them. And it won't stay fixed until there is nobody left to write it.

In the end, I suppose we get the history we deserve as a society.

No comments: