Why You Shouldn't Worry About Texas's Textbook Changes

We're now two weeks into the row over changing Texas history-textbook standards, and the story seems likely to persist at least until a final vote in May on the changes. That means several more weeks of hysteria.

Liberals are outraged. The Huffington Post exemplified the shrill alarm that's being raised: "Ultraconservatives wielded their power over hundreds of subjects this week, introducing and rejecting amendments on everything from the civil rights movement to global politics." You'd think Texas had decided to wipe slavery from the textbooks, paint George Washington as an evangelical Christian, and depict Franklin Roosevelt as a radical Trotskyite. Here are five reasons not to get too exercised about the Lone Star state's shenanigans.

  1. It's not that bad. OK, some of them are pretty offensive: Jefferson Davis's inaugural speech will be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's, and new textbooks will try to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy. Plus Jon Stewart rightfully skewered a board member's paradoxical assertion that Oscar Romero shouldn't be taught because no one knows about him. But most of them aren't that bad. For example, you may heard that Thomas Jefferson was being eliminated from history books!(!!!) Not quite. The third president—whose deism, authorship of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, and coinage of the term "separation of church and state" enrage some conservative Christians—was replaced in a list of thinkers who influenced 18th- and 19th-century revolutions. That's petty, but it's no less true that his replacements—Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, for example—did, too. Or what about the inclusion of the "conservative resurgence" of the 1980s and 1990s? Well, love ‘em or hate ‘em, Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, and the Contract with America were significant figures that affected recent American history. Exhibit A: These textbook changes.
  2. It's nothing new. Texas's school board is particularly unhinged now—as excellent pieces in Washington Monthly and The New York Times Magazine have demonstrated—but it's always been a bit of an embarrassment. The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss points out that Texas had a prior textbook fiasco, to the tune of $20 million, in the 1990s, because no one thought to check for the thousands of errors in books. Which brings us to our next point:
  3. It's Texas's business. A major source of handwringing is the worry that the rest of the nation's children will be affected by a few wingnuts in Texas. There was a time when a large state like Texas would sway the nationwide curriculum, because publishers would tailor their books to fit major constituents, then sell them to smaller states. But as the Texas Tribune reports, publishers say that's no longer the case—they're now able to sell different books in different markets. That means parents in Berkeley, Portland, and Madison won't have to worry. Of course, parents in Texas may grow concerned about supbar standards, which is why:
  4. It's likely to cause a strong backlash. Divisive changes tend to earn voters disdain and lose popular support. For example, when the Kansas Board of Education came close to adopting a creationist science curriculum, it caused similar nationwide hysteria. But Kansans didn't think the changes made any more sense than anyone else, and they responded by voting out the intelligent-design bloc and installing a conservative but evolution-friendly board, saving the evolution-only curriculum. The process may already be beginning in Texas. The worst-case scenario is that the changes make it all the way to the end of the 10-year curriculum-review cycle—at which point one can hope they'll be revised back to reason.
  5. Besides, it's not like high-schoolers pay any attention to their textbooks anyway.
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