Hey, did you hear about the latest Texas textbook outrage?
It’s a doozy. The Washington Post editorial board slammed Texas for selecting social studies textbooks “deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history.” Picking up on the Post’s rebuke, Salon warned that this fall millions of Texas kids would learn from a textbook that “never mentions the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow.” Yikes!
No wonder, then, that a blogger for Slate insisted she wouldn’t raise her kids in Texas because of the “partisan fictions that are inundating Texas’ textbooks.”
That does sound awful. Downplaying slavery’s role in Southern history is shocking and despicable, as is pretending that the obscene legacy of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow doesn’t exist. How could this travesty have come to pass?
The short answer: it didn’t.
To understand what’s going on, you need a little history lesson. In 2010 the Texas State Board of Education adopted curriculum standards—essentially instructions for publishers—that did, in fact, downplay slavery and discrimination. Scorn and ridicule quickly followed, even from unlikely sources such as the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which excoriated the state board for displaying “overt hostility and contempt for historians and scholars.”
So when publishers submitted textbooks to the board last year, many worried that they would be tainted by the board’s slippery grasp of the state’s racist past. Happily, though, publishers mostly ignored the board, according to Dan Quinn, of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization dedicated to countering what it sees as far-right activism. “I think publishers did a good job of making sure of the centrality of slavery,” he says. Quinn, who perhaps more than anyone has sounded the alarm about the board’s bias, was distressed to read national reports asserting incorrectly that Texas children wouldn’t be reading about the KKK and Jim Crow. “The textbooks cover all of that,” he says. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s eighth-grade U.S. history textbook, for instance, includes a section on KKK terror and the postwar black codes that created “working conditions similar to those under slavery.”
Not that the textbooks are without fault. For instance, the seventh-grade Texas history textbook, published by Pearson, begins its overview of the Civil War by noting that there were “several causes” of the war, states’ rights among them. That’s a worrisome start. But the next paragraph is better, stating that “most historians agree that the major reason for disagreement about states’ rights was the determination of white Southerners to maintain slavery.”
Ed Countryman, a history professor at Southern Methodist University who has opposed the board’s standards, doesn’t think the new textbooks are perfect, but he doesn’t see them as an abomination either. “A teacher can teach from these textbooks and students can get real American history, rather than the fairy tales that the board would have students learn,” he says.
Most teachers haven’t even seen the new textbooks yet—and some teachers will go their own way no matter what’s in them. Classroom veterans like Kirk White, of Austin’s Bailey Middle School, tend to be primarily concerned with capturing students’ attention. To liven up the often-dry textbook narratives, he has his seventh graders read primary documents, like newspaper ads taken out by slaveowners hoping to track down runaway slaves. Anything to wipe the glazed looks off their faces. “I’m trying to avoid them walking away oblivious to slavery,” White says. “If I can do that, then I feel pretty good.”