Commentary: Time for the State Board of Education to teach the truth

Before kickoff in the Super Bowl, the first pitch in the World Series, and tipoff of the NBA Championship Finals, both teams have already pre-printed T-shirts proclaiming themselves as world champions. When the games are over, the losers’ shirts are sent overseas to impoverished countries, which explains why children across the world grow up thinking that the Buffalo Bills won four straight Super Bowls, the San Antonio Spurs never won a title, and the Houston Astros are waiting to win their first.

Professional sports leagues perpetrating bad sports history in children’s minds is unintentional and excusable under the circumstances. But the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) indoctrinating the minds of public schoolchildren with bad American history is inexcusable and avoidable.

This week, the SBOE is debating proposed revisions to social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools. These standards guide the content publishers include in textbooks and the teaching of millions of students.

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The SBOE is infamous for having a greater fidelity to some of its members’ far-right ideology than to historical fact, sacrificing the latter to advance the former.

SBOE members lack the power to bend history to their will. But they can distort history to fit their political agenda, and it’s an ability exercised with alarming disregard to truth.

The SBOE adopted the current social studies curriculum standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), in 2010. It is such a masterpiece of misrepresentation and propaganda over actual history that it was singled out for criticism by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its 2011 report, The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011.

The report chastised the standards for using a thematic structure more often used by “the relativist and diversity-obsessed educational left.” It accused the SBOE’s conservative majority of openly seeking “to use the state curriculum to promote its political priorities, molding the telling of the past to justify its current views and aims. Indeed, the SBOE majority displayed overt hostility and contempt for historians and scholars, whom they derided as insidious activists for a liberal academic establishment.”

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The report criticized the standards for the near absence of Native Americans in the curriculum, promoting conservative talking points on the role of government and international relations, and downplaying slavery and segregation. The standards even distort the influence of religion, dismissing separation of church and state, and claiming that Moses “informed” the writing of our nation’s founding documents.

But SBOE members in 2010 were especially shameless in perpetuating the lie that slavery was one of several causes for the Civil War when it was the reason. Lost Cause advocates always ignore the Lost Clauses in the Declarations of Secession of the Confederate states, including Texas, which explicitly cite slavery as their reason for seceding.

Their talk of heritage embraces my white great-great uncle who fought for the Confederacy, but it ignores my enslaved black great-great grandfather, his half-brother. More than it was brother fighting against brother, the Civil War was about brothers fighting to keep brothers and sisters enslaved.

But this seems to have been an uncomfortable truth for some SBOE members in 2010, as was the more expansive and indispensable roles which Native Americans, Latinos and women played in our nation.

History is full of uncomfortable truths. Reality doesn’t have an ideological slant, and historical facts don’t always coincide with our politics. But they must be studied, taught and discussed.

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There’s something wrong when what children are taught depends on whether the State Board of Education has a Republican or Democratic majority — whether it has a greater representation of conservatives or liberals.

But, this year’s SBOE can start changing that. It can correct the distorted, politicized history the 2010 board wove into the current standards.

Facts are facts. No matter how many bodies are wearing your team’s colors, the score doesn’t change. Teach the truth.

Clack is a board member of the Texas Freedom Network.

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