Textbooks Are the Education Ground Zero of America’s Culture Wars

A fight in Texas is the latest battle over what the nation’s students are being taught.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Nov 29, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It was billed as a way to teach Texas high school students about Latinos’ overlooked contributions to Lone Star State history. The new Mexican American Heritage textbook, however, was so chock-full of errors, stereotypes, and racist sentiments that protesters demanded school administrators block the book from ever appearing in classrooms.

Under pressure, the State Board of Education relented, unanimously voting earlier this month to shelve the book and start again from scratch. But the controversy is just the latest and highest-profile ideological skirmish over public school curricula—and the larger war over who decides what gets taught is far from over.

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In Tennessee, a woman who helped form an anti-Islam parents group led a campaign to remove sections of a social studies text that included positive descriptions of Islam, arguing it “promotes Islamic propaganda.” In southeast Texas, an administrative committee charged with streamlining the high school biology curriculum is under fire for removing sections that critics say undermine the teaching of creationism.

In Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, the school board voted unanimously to ban all textbooks that question climate change, and last year in Colorado, voters replaced the entire school board over a debate on whether the uglier chapters of American history, such as slavery, should be included in the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum—or whether the course should, as one former member put it, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

The clashes in Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, and elsewhere reflect a long, unsettled national battle at the intersection of education and the so-called culture wars: fights between the political left and right over religion, science, inclusion, and national identity.

The pushback from conservatives and the advancing of stereotypes reveal “privileged narrow views on language, culture, society, science, history, and so forth,” David E. Kirkland, a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, told TakePart. “Within this climate, it is not beyond imagination for a complete rewriting of history and human knowledge from the constricted perspectives of a political elite—in this case, right-wing conservatives, who feel that schools and textbooks have gone overboard by spewing progress-leaning ideologies.”

“It’s like they’ve taken to heart the African proverb: ‘Until the lion learns to write history, the story of the jungle will forever glorify its hunter,’ ” Kirkland said.

At issue in Texas is a push to include Mexican American history in the state history curriculum; more than half the state’s 5 million students are Latino, and most are Mexican American. Given that Texas history is intertwined with Mexico’s, some educators say it makes sense—particularly because research shows ethnic studies courses can boost some students’ performance on state tests and increase the odds they’ll graduate from high school.

Texas’ State Board of Education called for publishers to submit books for an optional social studies course and got just one submission: Mexican American Heritage—written by a publisher who had no expertise in the subject matter. At the same time, the sample produced for the board portrayed Mexican Americans as lazy, dangerous, and led by activists who wanted a separate nation.

After weeks of protests and hearings, the State Board of Education rejected the textbook in a 14–0 vote—a significant step, as Texas is one of the country’s largest textbook markets. Content developed for the state is often used as the template for books sold in other states.

Kirkland said it’s not uncommon for textbook producers or school boards to manipulate or omit facts—historical or scientific—to promote a political agenda, usually a conservative one, under the guise of balanced, unbiased education.

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“For example, the Texas State Board of Education has been wrestling with questions of what to put in its science textbooks for years now, deleting from textbooks—in some cases—anything that deals with climate change or evolution,” Kirkland said. “In 2009, Dr. Don McLeroy and his so-called like-minded colleagues on the [education board] were successful in requiring Texas science textbooks to address the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories such as evolution, allowing some schools to outright deny their existences.”

Last year, “the Texas Board of Education rejected a measure that would require university experts to fact-check the state’s textbooks in public schools,” Kirkland said. “So things like deleting and dismissing concepts such as evolution from the thinking of schools to other controversial parsings of history such as references to slaves as ‘workers’ gained state justification.”

At the same time, “this erasure of actual facts for propaganda is dangerous and manipulative,” Kirkland said. “Not only does it harm individuals who have their histories tainted or completely destroyed; it hurts all children who grow up believing in lies and never get to access the truth and sheer breadth and complexity” of human knowledge, history, reasoning, and rationality.