What's in the Proposed New Texas Textbooks? We Got Democracy from Moses

by Dan Quinn

This month’s public hearing at the State Board of Education (SBOE) highlighted serious problems in the proposed new social studies textbooks for Texas public schools. Scholars working with the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund noted many of those problems in extensive reviews of the new textbooks. We released our scholars’ reports on those textbooks September 10. You can read the reports here.

We knew there would be problems in 2010, when religious-right members of the SBOE passed new curriculum standards requiring Texas schools to teach students that Moses influenced the writing of America’s founding documents. Historians and constitutional scholars have dismissed that requirement as absurd. But publishers appear to have felt compelled to include those claims in their textbooks anyway.

Perfection Learning’s Basic Principles of American Government textbook puts Moses ahead of John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu in a list of “philosophers, historians and economists” from whom the nation’s Founders got their ideas for the U.S. Constitution. The text also goes so far as to suggest that the story of Moses getting the Ten Commandments from God is historical fact:

 “Moses (born in the Second Millennium BCE in Egype) was the Hebrew leader who forced the Pharaoh to release his people from slavery. During their years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai, Moses handed down God’s Ten Commandments to the Hebrews. These commandments now form the bedrock on which the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian codes of behavior are based. The full account of Moses’ life can be found in the Bible’s book of Exodus.

It is one thing to tell students that Christians and Jews believe this; it’s quite another to teach these faith claims as historical fact in a public school classroom. But it gets worse.

See where Pearson Education’s Magruder’s American Government finds the origins of modern democratic government:

“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.”

This simply isn’t true. As Dr. Emile Lester writes in his review of the Pearson textbook, the forms of government mentioned in the Old Testament are theocracy and monarchy. Moreover, no Old Testament figures called for alternatives that remotely approach democratic government.

In a section discussing Moses’ influence on American government, McGraw-Hill’s United States Government textbook tells students:

“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.”

As Dr. Lester writes in his review, this passage “provides students with almost the opposite of the historical truth.” The American Founders purposely sought a Lockean social contract that was a voluntary agreement between the people and their government: “Locke’s version of the social contract was in many ways a repudiation of the biblical covenant view referenced in this passage.”

All of these passages — and similar ones in the proposed textbooks — are clearly designed to meet the demands by members of the State Board of Education that students learn Moses and Judeo-Christian principles were primary influences on the American constitutional structure. Indeed, these claims are at the core of arguments, made by religious-right activists and politicians, that the Founders intended to create a Christian nation with a government and its laws based on the Bible. Those arguments are profoundly wrong, but students will learn them if the SBOE votes in November to approve these new textbooks.

You can read more about what’s in the proposed new social studies textbooks for Texas public schools here: tfn.org/history. While you’re there, sign the petition calling for textbooks based on honest, accurate history, not the ideological beliefs of politicians on the State Board of Education. The SBOE is set to vote in November on which textbooks to approve.