Since the murder of nine people at an African-American church in Charleston last month and the renewed controversy over the Confederate flag that followed, we’ve seen a slew of stories about what public school textbooks teach about the Civil War. Very early on, we got a call from the Washington Post on this question. While that reporter generally did a good job explaining the nuances of the controversy in Texas, we’ve seen quite a few stories from other media outlets that haven’t quite hit the mark. So let’s set the record straight on some key questions.
In the first place, why would anyone outside the state care what Texas textbooks say about anything?
Because of the huge size of the Texas market, publishers have typically written their textbooks to conform to curriculum standards in this state and then also sold those textbooks in other states around the country. Technology, publishing methods and other factors have somewhat lessened the influence of Texas, but that influence remains strong. That’s largely a consequence of the economics of publishing.
So what’s the problem with the Texas curriculum standards?
Publishers write their textbooks to conform to curriculum standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), that are adopted by the State Board of Education. The state board is a 15-member, highly politicized body that has been at the center of raging battles over textbook content for decades.
In 2009, for example, the state board appointed right-wing ideologues like David Barton and Peter Marshall to serve as so-called “expert” advisers in the revision of the Texas curriculum standards for social studies. One of the first things Barton and Marshall did was insist that César Chavez — the renowned community and labor organizer and civil rights leader — be stricken from the standards because they objected to his political beliefs and argued he was a poor role model for students. Fortunately, the subsequent uproar forced the board to reject that demand. But board members proceeded to politicize the standards in other ways, including distorting the history of the Civil War.
In fact, the social studies curriculum standards ultimately adopted by the state board in 2010 were so controversial that a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think-tank, has called them a “politicized distortion of history” with “misrepresentations at every turn.” State board members sharply skewed the standards to the political right on a host of subjects, exaggerating religious influences on the American founding and the Constitution (Moses!), dismissing the separation of church and state (a myth!), trying to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy (he was right!) and, of course, distorting the history of the Civil War and its aftermath.
Fordham’s report criticized the standards for failing even to mention the Black Codes, Jim Crow, sharecropping and the Ku Klux Klan, all important post-Civil War topics. Moreover, the report pointed out that board members purposely downplayed slavery’s role in causing the Civil War. In fact, a board majority rejected efforts to ensure that students learn about the centrality of slavery to that conflict, offering the argument that slavery was just a “side issue.” Historians have soundly rejected the “states’ rights” argument as historical revisionism promoted by Confederate heroes and apologists after the war.
So how did publishers deal with the standards in their textbooks?
The good news is that publishers did a better job than the curriculum standards in their coverage of the Civil War and its causes and aftermath. But they still let politics get in the way of telling students the full truth.
The textbooks generally make clear the centrality of slavery in the lead up to secession and the war. That’s very good. Most also tell students about the Black Codes, Jim Crow, the KKK and other topics important in understanding what happened in the South in the decades after the Civil War. In both cases, the textbooks do a better job of teaching factual history than the state board did in adopting the heavily politicized curriculum standards.
On the other hand, publishers apparently felt compelled to give time to the “states’ rights” argument that the state board was demanding students learn. This revisionist history appears in various ways in the textbooks. Following are some excerpts noted in a report the TFN Education Fund released about the standards in 2010. That report included reviews of the textbooks conducted by scholars from the University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. Here are some examples of problematic passages in the textbooks:
McGraw-Hill School Education – United States History to 1877
The text states: “Southerners used states’ rights to justify secession. Each state, they argued, had voluntarily chosen to enter the Union. They defined the Constitution as a contract among the independent states. They believed the national government had broken the contract by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and by denying Southern states equal rights in the territories. As a result, Southerners argued, the states had a right to leave the Union.”
Pearson Education – U.S. History: Colonization – Reconstruction
In a section titled “Causes Leading to War,” the text states: “Now a new issue emerged: whether southern states were allowed to secede under the Constitution. Most southerners believed that they had every right to secede. After all, the Declaration of Independence said that ‘it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish’ a government that denies the rights of its citizens. Lincoln, they believed, would deny white southerners the right to own African Americans as slaves.
For many southerners, secession was an issue of states’ rights and sovereignty, or independent control of an area. Many in the southern states believed that states had the sovereign right to secede. According to this view, states had the authority to make decisions without interference from the federal government, and the Constitution created a Union made up of states that could decide to leave the Union at any point. Those states also had the sovereign right to join together to form a new government, such as the Confederacy.”
Discovery Education – United States History (Prehistory-Reconstruction)
Materials include a two-minute video that argues that the states’ rights concept originated in the tariff disputes of 1828-1832. The video goes on to present the nullification controversy as strictly a matter of states’ rights and interests, and gives a sympathetic account of John C. Calhoun’s developing political position on the matter without any mention that he culminated that development in 1837 when he announced that slavery was a “positive good” for all involved, including slaves. The video closes with a song from the period endorsing the southern position.
What’s wrong with these passages?
All three of these publishers provide thorough and accurate coverage of slavery in their products. There is no attempt to hide the issue in the run up to the Civil War. However, the requirement in the curriculum standards that compels coverage of “sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery” (in that order) as causes of the war leads publishers to these sort of misleading – and even inaccurate – passages.
They are inaccurate for a simple reason: the concept of “states’ rights” in an abstract sense as a defense of secession did not appear until after the conclusion of the Civil War. Contemporaneous documents and statements by southerners make it plain that slavery was the underlying reason for their action. In their secession ordinances, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas all stated their understanding that slavery had been placed in danger by Lincoln’s election and made that their major theme. Moreover, high officials, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, made plain the absolute centrality of protecting slavery as the reason for secession. That point is important for two reasons. One is that both Davis and Stephens revised their positions after the war was over to argue that slavery had not been the issue at all, maintaining instead that it had been about abstract constitutionalism. The other is that these passages, which appear designed to fit the TEKS requirement of considering “states’ rights” as a separate issue, does dovetail with current neo-Confederate ideology, which is deeply false to the historical record.
We hope this helps put into perspective the problems we found in history textbooks going into Texas classrooms this fall. Generations of public school students, especially in the South, have been taught that the Confederacy fought for some noble cause like “states’ rights” instead of in defense of a horrific institution that allowed the purchase and enslavement of human beings. The new textbooks help perpetuate that myth. And that’s a big reason why Americans are still arguing, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, about the place of the Confederate flag and the statues of Confederate heroes.