Love the History Textbook Story? Some Resources for Further Reading

It is a great day in the offices of ILYBYGTH International when a study of US History textbooks makes the front page of the New York Times. Dana Goldstein’s comparison of textbooks from Texas and California has been a big hit. My fellow nerds and I have been swapping books and sources we’ve used to teach this kind of thing. I thought I’d collate them here to make it simple.

NYT TExtbooks CA TX

What students see in CA is not what they see in TX.

Outside of academic sources, anyone who wants a quick intro to Texas textbook policies could start with Trey Kay’s podcast about the Gablers. They were a powerful couple who pushed Texas textbooks in more conservative directions, with impressive results.

If you’re more of a watcher than a listener, check out The Revisionaries. This great documentary tells the story of Texas’s school board in 2010.

If you’re in the mood for an academic look at these issues, here is a short list of a few great books in no particular order.zimmerman robertson case for contention

#1: Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.  From the publisher:

From the fights about the teaching of evolution to the details of sex education, it may seem like American schools are hotbeds of controversy. But as Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson show in this insightful book, it is precisely because such topics are so inflammatory outside school walls that they are so commonly avoided within them. And this, they argue, is a tremendous disservice to our students.

#2: Ronald W. Evans, Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children? From the publisher:

The history of social studies is a story of dramatic turf wars among competing political camps. In this volume, Ronald Evans describes and interprets this history and the continuing battles over the purposes, content, methods, and theoretical foundations of the social studies curriculum.

binder contentious#3: Amy Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools. From the publisher:

Both [Afrocentrism and creationism] made similar arguments about oppression and their children’s well-being, both faced skepticism from educators about their factual claims, and both mounted their challenges through bureaucratic channels. In each case, challenged school systems were ultimately able to minimize or reject challengers’ demands, but the process varied by case and type of challenge.

#4: John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? John Fea has long been one of the most astute and penetrating scholars studying the history culture wars. In this book he examines the claim that America’s history proves that it was meant to be a specifically Christian nation. If you don’t have time for his whole book, you can get a taste at his blog.

#5: Adam Shapiro, Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools. Okay, it’s not about US History, but Shapiro’s analysis of the process by which textbooks authors, editors, and publishers come up with a final product is an absolute must-read.

#6: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Also beyond a narrow focus on history textbooks, Prof. Petrzela looks at the culture-war history of California schools in the twentieth century.

Trying Biology

#7: Sorry to include a book of my own, but The Other School Reformers looks hard at the politics of history textbooks. Conservative reformers spent a lot of time examining textbooks. They complained about progressive-sounding ones and successfully had them removed. They had less luck when they tried to publish textbooks of their own, as I recounted recently in these pages.

What else? This list is just a start. What other books and resources would you recommend for people interested in the culture-war politics of history textbooks?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Well, it looks like the holidays really are over. This week was full of action, from ineffective left-wing college brainwashing to God’s endorsement for 2020:

Are lefty professors turning college students liberal? Short answer: No. The Economist.

Although the survey responses oscillated from year to year, the effects were not big enough to be statistically significant. Such a lack of evidence should discourage people from believing that academic elites push their left-wing agenda onto their impressionable young pupils. But given how often conservative-leaning media rail against leftist indoctrination in universities, it almost certainly will not.

economist college influence

Not a lot of change there…

IS God’s hand on America? A review of Michael Medved’s new book at WaPo.

With every bullet that didn’t hit an intended target and every carriage or car accident that did not end in a fatality, [Medved] sees the hand of God. . . . The shameful, racist, violent aspects of the American narrative are swept away or excused. . . . for good or ill, the book will mostly appeal to listeners of right-wing radio and viewers of Fox News.

medved gods handSome people think it is. A skeptical look at the Evangelicals for Trump rally at USAT.

Trump the strongman was on display. Like autocratic leaders before him, he stirred fear among his people and offered them safety under his regime. . . . I was stunned when I witnessed evangelical Christians — those who identify with the “good news” of Jesus Christ —raising their hands in a posture of worship as Trump talked about socialism and gun rights.

Bernie: Ban high-stakes testing, at USAToday.

The most serious flaw of high-stakes testing . . . is that it ignores the real problems facing our teachers and students: social inequality and underinvestment in our schools.

How to teach history right, at EdWeek.

[Baltimore’s] emphasis on this [local history] approach that allows students to see themselves in history puts their own lives and people they know at the center of what can feel detached and distant. The consequences for this approach, if done right, can be profound, [Superintendent Sonja Santelises] argued. . . . it allows children to see complexity in history and not just (in the case of black Americans, for example) one long and painful struggle against oppression.

Well….yeah. More secure housing helped students do better on high-stakes tests, at Chalkbeat.

“Housing policy is education policy,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, one of the researchers and a professor at Syracuse University. “We want to improve kids’ outcomes — sometimes what we’re going to have to do is look outside of the schoolhouse door and think about housing.”

God weighs in on 2020 elections:

“Evangelical Christians of every denomination and believers of every faith have never had a greater champion, not even close, in the White House, than you have right now,” Mr. Trump said. “We’ve done things that nobody thought was possible. Together we’re not only defending our constitutional rights. We’re also defending religion itself, which is under siege.”

Student #2 sues evangelical Fuller Seminary for anti-LGBTQ bias, at CT.

“It’s a very important case at this time in our nation’s history,” said Paul Southwick, the attorney representing Maxon and Brittsan. “This case could set an important legal precedent that if an educational institution receives federal funding, even if it’s religiously affiliated, even if it’s a seminary, that it’s required to comply with Title IX prohibitions on sex discrimination as applied to LGBT individuals.”

Richard Mouw comes out against Trump, at R&P.

When Trump’s evangelical supporters tell us that in presidential elections we are not voting for candidates for sainthood, I agree. . . . But Christians do have a responsibility to promote the cause of moral leadership in public life. And I do want Christian leaders to be guided in their decisions by keeping the “What would Nathan do?” question clearly in mind. The writer of the Christianity Today editorial has now done just that in the case of President Trump. I am grateful for the prophetic message.

Methodist split over LGBTQ also a split among colleges, at IHE.

“The younger generation will not want to continue to be involved in a church that continues to discriminate against the LGBQIA community,” said the Reverend Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, the president of Claremont School of Theology. “This will allow for our seminaries to focus on our mission in training leaders regardless of human sexuality.”

Same publisher. Same authors. Different states = different textbooks, at NYT.

Texas says that white Southerners opposed Reconstruction because of tax increases as well as racial resentment. California instead includes primary-source quotations from black historical figures about white resistance to civil rights.

NYT TExtbooks CA TX

What students see in CA is not what they see in TX.

Conservative History Textbooks: The Rest of the Story

Have you seen it yet? The New York Times just published Dana Goldstein’s comparison of US History textbooks from California and Texas. The results won’t shock SAGLRROILYBYGTH. This morning I’ll offer a little additional history of the long feud over US History textbooks.

NYT TExtbooks CA TX

What students see in CA is not what they see in TX.

As Goldstein documented, US History textbooks look very different in the two states, even though they come from the same publisher and include the same authors. Yet the differences can be glaring. For example, in a section on the Constitution, the California edition notes that there have been some restrictions on Second Amendment gun rights. The Texas edition leaves that part blank. The California editions emphasize African American struggles and LGBTQ history far more than do the Texas ones.

It’s not only US History textbooks that have experienced this sort of regional culture-war editing. As Adam Shapiro explained in Trying Biology, science textbooks have long been an awkward weapon in evolution/creation culture wars.

As I argued in The Other School Reformers, in the twentieth century conservatives worked hard to promote a more-conservative textbook option. Their record was mixed. At times, conservative history-textbook activism flopped in embarrassing ways.

For example, in 1925 the American Legion commissioned a new, patriotic history of the United States. Too often, the Legion complained, American youth “grow up ignorant or anarchistic or otherwise ‘destructive.’” They needed a textbook that told the nation’s history as it really was. Namely, the Legion insisted, despite “occasional mistakes,” American history has been “so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism.”

horne rejection AL

From the Legion commission’s report, 1926

Unfortunately for the American Legion, the actual textbooks they commissioned were terrible. Like, Jefferson Lies terrible. After a prominent historian called them “perverted American history” in The Atlantic, the Legion appointed a special commission to analyze the books. After this Legion commission concluded that the books were “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements,” the Legion withdrew their support and the textbooks stayed in their warehouses.

Other conservative activists have had far more success with their history activism. Most famously, the roots of the Texas bias that Dana Goldstein uncovered can be traced to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Journalists tend to focus on the textbook activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, which began in the 1960s. That activism mattered, but the Gablers got their ideas from the Texas DAR.

For decades, the DAR—at both national and state levels—made history textbooks the focus of their activism. For instance, in 1928 the national President General told the annual gathering that some state DARs had chosen

to look into the matter of textbooks used in some of the schools.  Individuals have sounded a warning that many books deny the Christian faith and contain sacrilegious and scornful sentences which will have a disastrous effect upon the impressionable minds of the young.

In 1941, a new President General repeated this call, in more gendered terms. As Helen Pouch exhorted her DAR audience,

Do all that women can do to eradicate questionable textbooks from the schools. This can and has been done in many cities.  It should be done in every city where these books are used.

Similarly, in 1950 new President General Marguerite Patton told the assembled DAR:

members should be especially aware of the schools in their own communities.  They should know the teachers who instruct their children; they should know the wording of textbooks, especially those pertaining to American history; and they should be cognizant of the manner in which the teachers present the subject matter to the pupils.  The interpretation of historical data can be, and often is, twisted erroneously, if a teacher is inclined to do so.

These decades of DAR activism paid off. DAR members were in a position to send uninvited “inspectors” to local schools to read textbooks and listen in on classroom teaching. They had the energy and drive to read through history textbooks to sniff out evidence of progressive politics or anti-patriotic teaching.

By the 1960s, their activism had become an expected part of textbook politics, especially in Texas. It lasted well into this century. If you haven’t seen The Revisionaries yet, it’s worth a watch. The documentary examines the conservative takeover of the Texas State Board of Education in the early 2000s.

Science and history were both targets of the new conservative majority. Creationist Don McLeroy wanted the science textbooks to help students reject mainstream evolutionary theory. McLeroy and his conservative allies also hoped to skew the history textbooks in a more conservative direction. From the list of required terms, the conservatives cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music.” They insisted on more about Reagan and the NRA.

More recently, too, Texas tweaked its list of required historical terms. In 2018, “Hillary Clinton” was out, but “Billy Graham” stayed in as terms Texas students needed to know.

It might seem shocking to some, but Texas’s careful curation of its history textbooks has a long and checkered history. Conservatives haven’t always won in Texas or elsewhere. When they did win, it was by harping on two points.

1.) Conservatives won by insisting their patriotic, conservative history was truer than other options. Conservatives haven’t won by saying kids should be kept ignorant. They’ve won by arguing that their vision is closer to historic fact. And,

2.) Conservatives won by insisting those other histories were at best misleading and at worst downright subversive. As always, any whiff of danger to students always makes parents and school administrators nervous. Conservatives have won their history-textbook wars when they’ve convinced enough people that their version of history is safer for both students and society.

Common Core: The Rest of the Story

Where did Common Core standards come from? Where did they go? Recent reporting in the New York Times asks these questions, but the real answer is a little murkier. The story of the Common Core standards can tell us a lot of things, but at heart the story provides more proof—if any more were needed—that schools thrum to the beat of people, not policy. It can tell us, too, why Cory Booker will not have a lot of luck with his current ed proposals.

So…what happened to the Common Core? As Dana Goldstein puts it,

The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.

And that’s all true enough. But the origins and career of the common-core idea can tell us about more than just high-stakes tests and math instruction. The history of the Common Core can tell us, for example, why Betsy DeVos matters more than almost anything else when it comes to current ed thinking.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, the Common Core did not have its roots in a reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Rather, the Common Core had a much longer history as a conservative dream, a fantasy of restoring American schools to a mythic golden age of rigorous learning and non-nonsense testing. If anything, the most immediate precursor of Common Core was a conservative reaction to 1983’s Nation at Risk report. Leading educational conservatives such as Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett began pushing rigorous, uniform standards as the proper way to save America from squishy progressive thinking.

common core hate it

Lots of haters, but what happened to the lovers?

It’s not a hidden history. As I’ve argued every chance I’ve gotten, conservatives have a long history of embracing federal power in ed policy when it suits their interests. Back in the 1980s, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander thought that common standards and high-stakes tests were the best way to make their conservative dreams come true.

I’m certainly not the only one to try to bring this history to light. From the Right, free-marketeers such as Michael Petrilli tried hard to convince conservatives to love Common Core. Petrilli and Chester Finn Jr. told the story over and over—Common Core represented a conservative win, a big one. Christian conservatives such as Karen Swallow Prior endorsed the standards, too.

From the Left(ish), too, analysts pointed out the true roots of Common Core. Writing for the Brookings Institution, for example, David Whitman hit the nail on the head:

The conservative roots of the Common Core are little known today. Even among reporters who cover the education beat, few are familiar with, and even fewer have written about, the efforts of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett, to develop and promote a model core curriculum while in office. Nor have they recounted, except in passing, the sweeping, self-described “crusade” that Senator Lamar Alexander launched to promote national standards and voluntary national assessments when he was secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration.

So what happened? How did Common Core become just as despised on the Right as it was on the Left? All kinds of conservatives stood up against this conservative reform, from culture-war street-fighter Phyllis Schlafly—who blasted the standards as “pornographic” and “encrusted with lies”—to high-brow Professor Patrick Deneen—who said the standards were based on a “desiccated and debased conception of what a human being is.”

Why? Because when it comes to ed politics, people matter more than policy. And when the Common Core standards were rolled out, it was during the Obama years. In the minds of many conservatives–both intellectuals and real people alike—the Common Core effort came to represent the crass overreach of the Obama White House. So instead of rallying behind the standards, conservatives joined progressives in trashing them. In the end, the high-profile support of standards by President Obama mattered more than the well-articulated support offered by prominent conservatives.

Why should Cory Booker care? Because a similar story is unfolding right now. For many years, charter schools and voucher funding enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Senator Booker was a big proponent, but so was Senator Warren and other leading Democratic lights. Queen Betsy has changed all that. By promoting charter schools so energetically, Secretary DeVos has made it difficult for people like Senator Booker to support them, even if they are basically a good idea in many cases.

What’s the takeaway? When it comes to schools, people matter more than policy. Voters and politicians care about who supports an idea more than what the idea actually is. And just like conservatives found it impossible to rally conservative support for “Obama-Core,” Senator Booker will not be able to rescue the charter-school baby out of the Queen Betsy bathwater.