At the beginning of each school year, I ask my students a pretty standard question, “Why do you think we should study history and government?” I am fortunate to work at a 6-12 public charter school that values Social Studies as an important part of a well-rounded curriculum. As a result, each student takes a Social Studies class all seven years he or she is on campus. By the time students reach my 11th grade U.S. History or 12th grade U.S. Government class, they have most likely been asked various versions of my question by previous teachers. However, I still ask the question because the ensuing discussion helps establish what students can expect from me over the course of the year, and what I will expect from them. Inevitably, one student will answer, “To memorize a bunch of dates,” and another will offer the slightly more profound response, “To learn about the mistakes of our past.” While both comments hold some truth, the study of Social Studies is much more than simply remembering dates and events. That fact seems to be at the heart of the current debate taking place in Texas about significant changes to the state’s Social Studies curriculum.
On May 21, 2010, the Texas Board of Education, whose members are elected in partisan races, amended the state’s Social Studies curriculum. The ramifications of this decision may be far-reaching, given that Texas serves 4.7 million students and is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the nation. As a result, publishers often tailor textbooks to the state standards of Texas, resulting in many smaller states being forced to use the same books. However, besides just influencing textbook publication, the situation raises some important questions about how we determine what is important for our students to learn, and who makes that determination.
The changes in Texas create a Social Studies curriculum that is long, detailed, and seemingly reflective of current ideological debates. Many argue that the curriculum fails to reflect a deep understanding of pedagogy and deprives students of opportunities to think critically. A few examples of the changes include:
- Deleting mention of the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention, one of the first documents calling for the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.
- Replacing the word “imperialism” with “expansionism” when speaking about the actions of the United States (presumably because of negative connotations associated with the word “imperialism” and the relative neutrality of the word “expansionism”), yet replacing the word “expansion” with “aggression” when describing the actions of the U.S.S.R.
- Eliminating Harriet Tubman as an example of “good citizenship,” and removing references to suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt and Benjamin Davis, the first African-American General in the United States Air Force and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen.
- Ignoring the “Double V” campaign during WWII in which African Americans demanded that victory against the Axis powers be followed with elimination of segregation in the South.
- Removing reference to Betty Friedan, the 1960s feminist and co-founder of National Organization of Women (NOW) and author of The Feminine Mystique, yet including a mandated focus on the leading conservative figures and institutions of the 1980s and 90s such as Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, and the NRA.
- Including an analysis of the benefits of capitalism without any discussion of its disadvantages.
As renowned historian Eric Foner wrote in the April 5, 2010 edition of The Nation:
More interesting is what the new standards tell us about conservatives’ overall vision of American history and society and how they hope to instill that vision in the young. The standards run from kindergarten through high school, and certain themes obsessively recur. Judging from the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners.
Many fail to understand Social Studies as a discipline. They make the incorrect assumption that it is the study of static events, fixed and understood in their entirety. What this misses, as Ron Briley of the National Council for History Education reminds us, is that Social Studies “is an exercise in interpretation.” “What was the event?” is not the question students should be asking in a Social Studies class because often, as Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” Rather, students of Social Studies should be analyzing an event from various, often contradictory, perspectives as they try to gain a greater understanding of the facts and their impact on both the present and the future.
A strong curriculum must focus on teaching students how to think, not what to think. It should allow students to become critical thinkers with the ability to understand and evaluate bias, synthesize data and ideas, engage in thorough and fair analysis, and express complex themes orally and in writing. By examining various perspectives and analyzing numerous primary sources, students learn how to think seriously about a topic and make well-informed decisions. Students must be given the opportunity to recognize that the facts they review, the events they study, the primary sources they mull over are open to their own interpretations. What the new Texas standards seem to suggest is that is there is no longer a need to look at multiple perspectives or recognize that our discipline is ever-changing and evolving as new interpretations and even newly discovered facts are introduced.
Sure, Social Studies is about evaluating and learning from the past. However, my job as a teacher is not to dictate what students should think. I do my job well when my students learn how to delineate between the important and inconsequential, and make discerning judgments about various actions, events, leaders, and legislation. The problem with the Texas curriculum is that it is more reflective of our current culture wars than an opportunity to teach students how to access and evaluate multiple perspectives and sources, which our Founders certainly did in creating our constitutional democracy.