History As Bunk

In Texas Textbooks, Moses Is a Founding Father

The Texas State Board of Education is studying how textbook publishers responded to the state’s ideologically driven guidelines for teaching history. The results, say historians, are dire.

09.22.14 9:45 AM ET

Four years ago, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) adopted new standards, known as TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), for social studies textbooks in the state’s schools. The process ignited an international media storm. When it was done, even the explicitly conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave TEKS a D, on the grounds that it amounted to political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity, and brute memorization.  

Now the SBOE is considering what textbook publishers have produced in response to the TEKS requirements. As a result, how students learn history in the Lone Star State is back in the news.  

In June, in response to the Fordham Institute’s criticisms and to the incoherent, ideologically-driven TEKS requirements, the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, commissioned three Ph.D. scholars, including myself, and seven University of Texas doctoral students to study the special Texas editions of 43 social-studies online texts proposed for middle and high school adoption. After a summer of painstaking work, our analysis was released by TFN on September 10, and since then the story has gotten legs. We agreed on two big points. First, most of the publishers had tried hard to deal with the situation that TEKS presented. Second, however, dealing with TEKS at all means distortion, or worse. 

The stakes are high: A Texas state adoption of a textbook means a very lucrative sale. In the case of print editions, that can mean sales outside of Texas, though electronic texts mean that what Texas wants presents less of a problem elsewhere than it used to do. Almost all the publishers submitted electronic editions crafted for Texas specifically. But even just the Lone Star market is enormous.

Critics ranging from the Fordham Institute to this writer have noted that one of the problems is the hodgepodge way that SBOE assembled the TEKS standards, without regard to either intellectual coherence or historical accuracy. In some instances, the problem is sins of omission. Thus in seventh-grade Texas history, in eighth- and 11-grade United States history, and 10-grade world history, what TEKS requires simply does not show Native and African-Americans as among history’s makers. They remain mere victims and/or outsiders.

But the investigators commissioned by the TFN also found that outright ideological agendas were at work. That problem became apparent when SBOE took public testimony on September 16.

The issue that attracted the most attention revolved around the intellectual influences the Framers felt when they crafted the United States Constitution. The new curriculum standards require students to learn about the supposed influence of individuals such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, William Blackstone, and even Moses on 18th-century republican thought and the American founding.  

The problem began when the SBOE evicted Enlightenment thinkers from the World History standards and substituted a list that included Moses, Aquinas, Calvin, and Blackstone. Figures from that grab-bag list also made their way into the requirements for United States history and government. Never mind that Aquinas and Calvin were theologians, or that Blackstone believed all societies should require some form of absolute, unchallengeable sovereign power. The real issue turned out to be Moses.

Careful analyst by Justine Esta Ellis (a scholar who was not part of the TFN group) finds the strategy of starting with Moses is aimed at presenting the United States as a unique “redeemer nation,” predestined among all others to act out God’s will. Arch-conservative David Barton, who has no historian’s credentials but who nonetheless has had a huge impact on TEKS, maintains that verse after verse from the Bible is quoted “verbatim” in the Constitution. Checking Scripture demonstrates quickly that this is just not so. The language and the ideas do not match. Any professor of history teaches history majors not to make that kind of mistake.  

But the State Board of Education wanted nothing to do with professors. More than a dozen from Texas colleges and universities volunteered to take part in reviewing texts this past summer. Almost all were turned down.

One of those historians, my colleague and former Southern Methodist University department chair Kathleen Wellman, testified at the SBOE public hearing this month. She told the SBOE that the effect of the TEKS requirement to find biblical origins for the Constitution would be to make Moses the “first American.” Some historians give that honor to Benjamin Franklin. Whoever might merit it, Moses definitely does not qualify. 

The truly sad thing about the TEKS approach is that it misses the real creativity of the men who gathered at Philadelphia and wrote the Constitution. Some were Christian; some were not. Almost all of them agreed with James Madison.  

“It is not pretended,” Madison wrote in April 1787, that professed religion could provide a “sufficient restraint” on individuals bent on doing wrong. He knew as well that “kindled into enthusiasm … by the sympathy of a multitude,” or even in “its coolest state,” religion can just as readily become “a motive to oppression as … a restraint from injustice.”  

Madison knew directly how colonial-era Anglicans had persecuted Baptists. He had read about Europe’s post-Reformation wars of religion. Nobody who knows the tragic history of 20th century Ireland, let alone the Middle East now, could disagree with his judgment then.

Whether the Framers were ardent evangelicals, cool Episcopalians and “Old Lights,” or outright doubters, they accepted Madison’s point. They had wrestled with the problem of political religion in the original state constitutions after independence. Their answer on the national level was to exclude religion altogether from the Constitution and from national politics.  

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Some of the founding states did retain special religious privileges for a time, particularly Massachusetts and Connecticut. Jefferson coined his famous metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state in response to an appeal from Connecticut Baptists, who still were suffering legal disabilities in 1809. They knew how he and their fellow Baptists had collaborated to bring about Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

The Framers were not hostile to religion; this was not the French Revolution. But they were embarking on a path that hardly anybody had tried to trace until then, realizing both that religion needed to be kept safe from the state and that the state had to be kept safe from militant, sectarian religion. To miss that point is to miss just one of the many dimensions in which they truly were breaking new ground. It is to miss how creative and fresh and daring the Framers’ thinking was.

The SBOE wants Texas students to learn about “American exceptionalism.” It’s a shame that in this case, as in many others, what they insist be taught denies the students the chance to understand what is truly exceptional about the course of American history.