On Tuesday a number of university scholars spoke out at a State Board of Education (SBOE) public hearing on proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools. Among those scholars was Dr. Jacqueline Jones, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. She was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History this year for her book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America. Dr. Jones focused her hearing testimony on one of the textbooks submitted by publisher Pearson Education. Her testimony, which we are posting here with her permission, is an excellent commentary on how the state’s deeply flawed curriculum standards (adopted by the SBOE in 2010) and textbooks based on those standards distort American history and promote ideological biases rather than sound scholarship.
My name is Jacqueline Jones. I am a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, where I chair the history department. I received my PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My fields of expertise include the history of modern America, the Civil War, the South, and the labor of African Americans and women. Between 2011 and 2014, I taught more than 1,000 UT students in the second half of the introductory American history survey (“The U. S. Since 1865”—HIS 315L). I speak here today representing only myself.
My comments will focus on the Pearson text, United States History: 1877 to the Present. I believe this text adheres closely to the TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum] standards, and thus provides a good indication of the way those standards shape teaching materials for public school students here in Texas. Simply put, those standards are deleterious to the teaching of history in several ways: First, TEKS standards encourage ideological biases that are either outside the boundaries of established, mainstream scholarship, or just plain wrong. Second, these biases lead to the omission of crucial facts. And third, the standards mandate the highlighting of certain arguments that the evidence in the text in fact refutes, leading to a great deal of confusion in the reader. This is especially the case with the standards that promote the significance of the American free enterprise system.
Before I begin however I would like to say a word about the way this text is organized. Pearson is of course a powerhouse textbook publisher, and this offering is visually stunning, full of videos and colorful images. It showcases a variety of online bells and whistles that seem to have been developed with the short attention span of the American teenager in mind. Each chapter, or “topic,” includes a series of “lessons” (usually six or seven to each “topic”) divided further by several “texts,” as well as an interactive reading notepad, editable presentations, videos, maps, core concepts, and a glossary. The “Celebrate Freedom” section, which includes documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, could have been considerably strengthened, and rendered more accurate, had it included the voices of various groups who celebrated freedom by working for a full and inclusive American citizenship.
The individual “texts,” which consist of five to nine slides and each take a couple of minutes to read, are the meat of this textbook. Unfortunately, for the historian, this fragmented approach hinders rather than advances the reader’s understanding of history. Students can—and are probably encouraged to—read the texts in any order they choose. And by organizing information in tight “silos,” the authors fail to show that history is in fact a story, with interweaving themes, and not pieces of discrete information to be committed to memory. And so Topic 5, The Great Depression, Lesson 2, text 2 (“Rural America Struggles with Poverty”), mentions the plight of farmers in the Dust Bowl, the Midwest, and California, but says nothing at all about the collapse of the sharecropping system in the Deep South, a major development during the 1930s. To find information on sharecroppers one must click on text 3, “Hard Times Hit Most Americans.” Again, this organization strikes me as piecemeal as best; it does not allow readers to understand the way that various themes connect with each other to form a coherent whole. Instead, the reader is presented with small, incomplete pieces of history standing alone.
In line with the TEKS standards, this particular textbook includes overtly ideological material that distorts the true story about this nation’s past. Rather than let students evaluate the evidence and formulate their own opinions, the text offers subjective judgments that seem to foreclose all debate. In a so-called interactive chart called “Reagan’s Leadership,” we learn that the president throughout his tenure demonstrated exemplary communication skills and problem solving, as well as courage, decisiveness, dependability and integrity.
Driven by ideological bias, questionable statements and assumptions abound in this text. It is hard to justify the claim that “The minimum wage remains one of the New Deal’s most controversial legacies.” Certainly people today debate the wisdom of raising the minimum wage, but the Aid to Dependent Children program (“welfare”) was much more contentious, to the extent that it—but not the minimum wage—was abolished in subsequent legislation. The section “Opposition to the New Deal” focuses only on FDR’s court-packing plan and his conservative critics, telling the student nothing about the vibrant Left composed of a variety of groups that believed the New Deal did not go far enough in eliminating the structural weaknesses and inequities in the American economy.
Moreover, throughout the text the authors seem determined to shield impressionable students from some of the unpleasant facts of our history. Thus Governor George Wallace’s attempt to block school integration, and his persistent glorification of white supremacy, is reduced to the statement that he represented “Southern voters who were unsettled by the cultural and social changes in the country,” making it sound as if he was appealing to those who did not like the Beatles’ music or their haircuts. The text also makes blatant insinuations that cannot be supported by the facts. Thus, the ferment of the 1960s, when women, blacks, and gays claimed their right to full American citizenship, is characterized as a time when young people “took a step away from the worldview of their parents,” a worldview that, we learn, “valued loyalty and authority and respected the military and veterans.” The authors also claim in the late 1960s, “Against a background of anti-war demonstrations, political assassinations kept the nation on edge,” implying (wrongly) that the assassins of King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcom X were motivated by some sort of anti-Vietnam War stance.
However, it is the relentless glorification of the free enterprise system that will probably cause the most confusion among students. The authors claim that the U. S. has close to a “pure,” market economy (Topic 1, Lesson 1, Economics Core Concepts), one that contrasts with a socialist “mixed economy.” Considering the skepticism with which the authors discuss governmental programs of any kind—they are invariably portrayed as misguided, inefficient, too costly, or damaging to individual freedoms—the student might reasonably expect to see an extended discussion of a market guided by an invisible hand of supply and demand, unfettered by the “meddling” of the government. Instead, the text is replete with examples of the way that government initiatives promoted the interests of business in material ways. Land subsidies and tax breaks gave a boost to private railroad companies. Tariffs protected American businesses from foreign competition. Laws governing corporations protected reckless and willfully negligent companies from the suits of consumers. And government programs also served to shape businesses in progressive ways—by enforcing health and safety regulations in the workplace, and passing clean air and water legislation. The relation between free enterprise and laissez faire remains unclear throughout.
We do our students a disservice when we scrub history clean of unpleasant truths, and when we present an inaccurate view of the past that promotes a simple-minded, ideologically driven point of view. Our young people are not so naïve; they look around and see a complex, highly partisan American political system and a dangerous world. Unless we enable them to understand the historical roots of the here and now—and those roots are admittedly tangled and messy—we cannot prepare them to be informed, engaged citizens of the United States. And college faculty will see a generation of students ill-prepared for the rigors of the history classroom, students who have never been taught how to think historically, or to think for themselves.
Textbooks adopted by the SBOE in November could be in classrooms for up to a decade. Scholars who reviewed the textbooks for the TFN Education Fund also identified serious problems with bias and inaccurate history. The textbooks are available for review online. Don’t forget to sign the petition calling for the State Board of Education to adopt textbooks that offer an honest, accurate portrayal of history.