The long-simmering Texas textbook saga continues. Four years after the State Board of Education adopted new social studies standards that were widely believed to have a more conservative bent, new history textbooks that will be used statewide for years to come are up for approval in November. Before the SBOE green lights the proposed materials, they held a special hearing with the publishers on Monday to address both public testimony and a scholarly report that blasted the books for factual errors and distorting history. The working session was an opportunity for the SBOE to discuss with publishers how they amended their texts to address problematic portrayals of religions, mischaracterization of the Constitution’s origins, and conservative politicization of historical events in the 300 printed and electronic learning materials.
Problems with the textbooks became national news on September 16, when the SBOE heard public testimony on the materials. Historians specifically took issue with references to Moses as an inspiration for the Framers, as well as descriptions of the Sikh religion as a combination of Islam and Hinduism rather than a standalone faith. Additionally, University of Texas History Department Chairwoman Jacqueline Jones worried the materials glorified the free enterprise system, according to the Texas Tribune. “These are full of biases that are either outside the established mainstream scholarship or just plain wrong, along with the omission of crucial facts,” she said.
Several scholars commissioned to study the proposed materials over the summer also found the materials problematic. Edward Countryman, an American history professor at Southern Methodist University, wrote in the Daily Beast last month that Texas’ new standards rely on “political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity, and brute memorization.”
According to Countryman, the books credit Moses and the Bible as having had undue influence on the Constitution, attributing theologians such as John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, rather than Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as guiding the Framers. Kathleen Wellman, former chairwoman of Southern Methodist University’s history department, told the board last month during public testimonty she was concerned students would think “Moses was the first American.”
For its part, the SBOE has recognized the texts are not perfect and pointed out that these issues can be resolved in the classroom. “We’ve got to remember these books are put in the hands of hopefully trained professionals who will teach these subjects in a fair and balanced and comprehensive way,” board member Thomas Ratliff told the Tribune last month.
Nothing is finalized yet, and it’s worth remembering that the textbooks are still a work in progress. Publishers, which reviewed public feedback submitted through the end of September, made what they considered necessary changes, and the SBOE scrutinized these edits at Monday’s hearing. One by one, representatives of major publishers, including McGraw Hill, Discovery Ed, and Cengage Learning, came before the board members, who posed questions as they leafed through thick white binders containing all the public comments on the learning materials and how publishers responded to them.
But considering the years-long controversy surrounding the SBOE—which seemed to reach a fever pitch under the tenure of former chair Don McLeroy, who was the subject of a lengthy New York Times Magazine story, featured in a documentary, and a guest on The Colbert Report—the board appeared Monday to be in damage control mode, asking all the representatives if they could foresee any other controversies with their materials. Throughout the session, multiple members asked publishers if they were sure the books were balanced and fair on various issues, including abortion. Some members took issue with the “aggressive and violent” portrayal of anti-abortion protesters in comparison to “peaceful” pro-abortion demonstrators.
A good portion of the hearing focused on religious issues, like whether or not to capitalize “Pope” and “messiah,” and concerns over the descriptions of Hindu caste systems and the Ten Commandments. But discussions of factual errors quickly turned into a conversation about individual board members’ personal preferences for what should be included in the books. Barbara Cargill, the board’s chair (pictured above), was concerned free enterprise wasn’t getting enough play. She and fellow SBOE member Ken Mercer also repeatedly suggested the books focus more on Civil War heroes William Carney and Phillip Bazaar, two non-white soldiers who earned Medals of Honor.
Comments like these faced some pushback from other board members who thought the hearing’s purpose was to correct facts, not offer subjective preferences for what should be added. “I’m under the impression, from what I read, that it’s against the law actually if we direct the publishers to add certain things,” said board member Ruben Cortez. Ratliff later chimed in on the focus of the SBOE’s questions: “We seem to be dipping our toe in gray area,” he said. “At the end of the day, we get to determine if it’s free of factual error and meets [state standards].” Cargill responded that SBOE can’t amend the materials but qualified with, “I think this is our chance to respond to the publishers.”
Multiple board members also commended simplification of complex issues. Pat Hardy noted that sixth-grade learning materials should be “very simple” and “very basic,” adding, “I hope Jon Stewart hears that.”
We’ve noted in the past the power held by the SBOE, a fifteen-member group that determines curriculum standards, graduation requirements and the content of textbooks for all Texas schools. And considering that many textbooks written to follow the state’s standards are adopted for use in school districts across the nation, these are academic requirements that can potentially have reach far beyond Texas’s borders.
Publishers have until November 7 to respond to the board’s comments, and the SBOE will decide on November 21 whether to implement the materials into state curriculum.