The Texas Curriculum Controversy

Given the redness of my home state of Texas at the moment—more crimson than rosé—you'd be forgiven for dismissing the recent headline-making flap over revisions to our high-school social-studies curriculum as pure politics. A near majority of the duly elected 15 members of the State Board of Education (SBOE) is locked in a hyperconservative embrace, aligned as a bloc to promote a social-issues-centric view of the world. Other contemporary controversies involving the SBOE have centered on neutering the sex-education component of the science curriculum, taking anything even vaguely PG-rated out of health textbooks (say, a line drawing of a woman's bare breast in a section on self-exam), and questioning the appropriateness of teaching the "theory" of evolution without also teaching creationism. But if those fights were largely relegated to the undercard, the social-studies controversy is a top-draw heavyweight brawl, with the jeering eyes of the nation upon us.

Every 10 years, the SBOE reexamines what the 4.7 million students in public high schools are taught on a variety of subjects. (As opposed to how it's done in other states, this process is conducted outside the purview of the commissioner of education or the state education agency.) After appointing and then hearing from panels of expert "reviewers," the board considers and votes on a variety of curriculum changes: add this, tweak that, outright eliminate something else.

This time around, the vote is in May, but trouble's been brewing since January, when it became clear that the list of historical figures deemed worthy of inclusion in civics textbooks was up for discussion: at various points, Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez were among those on the chopping block, while the inventor of the yo-yo (I'm not making this up) was cheerfully inserted and the laundering of Joseph McCarthy's reputation was contemplated. Aesop's fables were found wanting, as was a discussion of the separation of church and state. There was also a problem of race and ethnicity—or lack thereof. Board members not allied with the conservative bloc complained that the non-Anglo history of the state was getting increasingly short shrift—despite the demographic makeup of the Alamo battlefield, or the fact that Texas will soon be majority Hispanic.

All over the country, educators and progressives recoiled, believing that the befouled byproducts of this process would force changes to their own curricula, given the Lone Star State's massive footprint as a consumer of textbooks. Although the executive director of the Association of American Publishers has called the pervasive influence of Texas "an urban myth," the damage was done—as goes Texas, it was feared, so goes the country.

It's certainly true that some of this owes to conservative ideology asserting itself in a conservative state that Barack Obama lost in 2008 and would lose even more resoundingly today. But there's something else at work—and a clue to it can be found in another revision pushed by one of the most vocal participants in the process. Bill Ames, a conservative gadfly appointed by former board chair and creationism proponent Don McLeroy, attempted to rally everyone round the flag of American exceptionalism—which he described as the belief that America is "not only unique but superior," and that its citizens are "divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment."

May I suggest that a state-level version of this philosophy is behind the SBOE contretemps—and that it's part of a larger argument playing out all across Texas? Remember (would we ever let you forget?) that this is a state that was once a nation. It's a "whole other country," as the tourism slogan boasts, and a wicked independent streak remains a defining—perhaps the defining —feature of our character. Texas and Texans have never cottoned to answering to outsiders. We don't like being told what to do. And we don't like it when our ability to chart our own course, to control our own destinies or the way we live our lives, is in any way hampered.

Consider how else Texas politics and public policy have made national headlines lately and it all seems of a piece. A year ago, on April 15, Gov. Rick Perry was filmed at a tea-party rally playing footsie with those who believe secession is a cure-all for perceived intrusiveness by the federal government. More recently, both Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott invoked the 10th Amendment to the Constitution in discussing the state's options in response to health-care reform, and Abbott committed to joining with attorneys general from around the country in a lawsuit against the federal government. During the GOP primary, gubernatorial candidate and tea-party darling Debra Medina talked openly of the state's right to negate any law passed by the feds that it believes to be unconstitutional. Around the same time, Perry made a prideful show of rejecting the chance to apply for the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grants, asserting that even a single string attached to federal funds was too many.

One way to view the attempt to revise the social-studies curriculum, then, is as a bunch of Texas patriots drawing an Alamo-like line in the sand against an invading horde of elites. Don't tell us who is and who isn't an important historical figure. Don't tell us to view history through glasses tinted by political correctness. Don't deny us our God-given right to question the validity of evolution or the separation of church and state. We know better. Don't mess with us. Don't mess with Texas … exceptionalism.

Of course, outrage is one thing and outcomes are another. Perry's secession talk solidified his ties to the Republican base and steeped him in tea but has amounted to nothing, policy-wise. It remains to be seen whether Obamacare can be kept legally from our borders. Medina herself was negated in the primary: she finished a distant third to Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (whose candidacy was itself the victim of a Texas-vs.-Washington mentality). And with a budget deficit of $11 billion or more looming in the next biennium, even some conservatives are rethinking an out-of-hand rejection of federal funds.

Likewise, the May meeting at which the State Board of Education will cast an up-or-down vote on the curriculum changes could produce fewer fireworks than we've seen to date. Anger is a catalyst, but too much anger can lead to overreach. In the spring primary, both Don McLeroy and another reliably conservative member of the board were defeated by moderate Republicans who want to depoliticize the SBOE, and a third moderate was elected to replace yet another member of the ruling bloc. The board's view of Texas exceptionalism remains deep-rooted, but the state's continued success at asserting its otherness is no sure thing.

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