2014 in Quotes: Public Schools, Textbooks and Moses

by Dan Quinn

Right-wingers spent a lot of time talking about public schools in Texas this year. That’s because the State Board of Education adopted new social studies textbooks for Texas public schools. The new textbooks are based on curriculum standards the board adopted in 2010. Those standards were so controversial that even the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute criticized them as a “politicized distortion of history.” Among the curriculum standards identified by Fordham as most problematic were those that exaggerated religious influences on the American founding and our political and legal systems. Those exaggerations include a requirement that student learn Moses was a major influence on our nation’s founding documents. Social conservatives on the Texas board championed such requirements even as scholars across the country dismissed them as absurd distortions. Following is some of what we read and heard during the debate this year. Click here to read more quotes from 2014.

Some excerpts from the new textbooks that will go into classrooms for the 2015-16 school year:

The “biblical idea of a covenant, an ancient Jewish term meaning a special kind of agreement between the people and God, influenced the formation of colonial governments and contributed to our constitutional structure.”

– McGraw-Hill’s United States Government textbook, adopted  this year by the State Board of Education this year for Texas. Dr. Emile Lester, a political scientist from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia who reviewed the government textbooks for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, called this claim “almost the opposite of the historical truth.”

“The roots of democratic government in today’s world – including government in the United States – lie deep in human history. They reach back most particularly to ancient Greece and Rome, and include elements related to Judeo-Christian philosophy, dating back thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon.”

– Pearson Education’s Magruder’s American Government textbook, adopted this year by the State Board of Education for Texas public schools. Dr. Lester pointed out that the forms of government mentioned in the Old Testament are theocracy and monarchy.

“Moses helped establish a legal system, including the Ten Commandments, to govern his people. Similarly, the founders of the United States wrote the Constitution and established a system of laws to govern Americans. They were also part of a tradition that was familiar with the Ten Commandments as a guide for moral behavior.”

– An annotation in Pearson Education’s Magruder’s American Government textbook, adopted this year by the State Board of Education for Texas public schools. Dr. Lester pointed out that this passage gives an exaggerated impression about the influence of and relationship between Moses and the Founders.

Dr. Lester and other scholars noted how the new textbooks represent a collaboration between publishers and politicians in the culture wars.

“The board of education and these texts had the opportunity to empower high school students with knowledge — instead they chose to treat students as pawns in our cultural war. Too often, these texts exaggerate or even invent history.”

– Emile Lester, a professor at the University of Mary Washington, speaking about proposed social studies textbooks that were under consideration by the Texas State Board of Education this year. Lester was one of a dozen scholars the Texas Freedom Network Education asked to review the proposed new textbooks.

“These books make Moses the original founding father and credit him for virtually every distinctive feature of American government. Moses shows up everywhere doing everything… I believe students will believe Moses was the first American.”

– Kathleen Wellman, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, testifying before the State Board of Education about proposed new social studies textbooks for Texas public schools. Wellman criticized textbooks for suggesting to student that Moses was a major influence on the Constitution and other American founding documents.

“A few years ago, I might have dismissed such efforts to hijack the education system as the nonsense that they are, but I’ve learned better. There’s something in the air these days that puts the bizarre on the same footing as the rational, that treats truth and accuracy as victims to be sacrificed in service to some larger if amorphous cause. You don’t dare brush aside such assaults on reason as too crazy to go anywhere, because before you know it ….”

– Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Jay Bookman, writing about the results of the TFN Education Fund-commissioned review of social studies textbooks for Texas public schools.

But many conservatives argue that the textbooks simply correct what they see as decades of liberal bias. This perspective is represented in the following quote, although it was not directed specifically at the Texas textbooks.

“If you are younger than forty and you’ve been taught in the public schools, you have not learned the real story of America. You have been taught a lie about America as a colonial power, as a rapacious power. As Dinesh points out, we ended slavery, we didn’t bring slavery to North America. Slavery was there, the Native Americans were enslaving each other before we got here. Eventually, we ended slavery. We have been a civilizing influence in the world.”

– Comments made by Richard Land, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy team, speaking on the radio program “Washington Watch.”

The Texas Freedom Network and coalition partners like the National Center for Science Education and Climate Parents succeeded in getting publishers to correct or remove entirely inaccurate information promoting climate change denialism in their new textbooks. That angered right-wingers who argue that the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that climate change is a real and growing threat and is caused largely by human activity is wrong.

“I’m afraid that [teaching climate change] is instilling fear in children at a very young age that either we’re going to run out of something or over-pollute the Earth. I didn’t want them to come away with the wrong impression of America.”

– Emily McBurney, member of the censorship group Truth in Texas Textbooks, which plans to launch a statewide (and possibly nationwide) rating system for school textbooks based on their right-wing values.

“I might pull a Cesar Chavez and call for a boycott.”

— David Bradley, a Republican State Board of Education member from Beaumont Buna who opposed the creation of a Mexican-American Studies course for Texas public schools, comparing his opposition to the course to labor and civil rights icon Cesar Chavez’s boycotts for better pay and working conditions.

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Gregorio Casar

It’s like I’ve been saying. @GregAbbott_TX and @RepDennisBonnen care more about attacking our local democracies than actually improving living conditions for Texans. You don’t even have to take my word for it, Bonnen’s clearly happy to say the quiet part out loud. twitter.com/wellsdun…