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Commentary: It’s time to take politics out of Texas classrooms

The ongoing textbook wars have embarrassed Texas for years. But the State Board of Education this year has a key opportunity to take politics out of our children’s classrooms.

The board is revising social studies curriculum standards that guide what students learn in their history, government and geography classrooms. The last revision of these standards eight years ago was a political circus. Board members made hundreds of changes to official drafts that teams of teachers and scholars had spent months pulling together.

Many changes were based on little more than the personal and political biases of board members themselves. The process was often chaotic and the final product poor.

How bad was it? At one point, board members deleted from the standards a children’s book author they mistakenly thought was a Marxist. They also removed Thomas Jefferson from a standard about great Enlightenment thinkers, arguing that he wasn’t important enough. They backed down on both in the face of withering criticism from across the country, but they insisted on making other appalling changes.

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For example, the current standards glorify Confederate heroes, even listing “Stonewall” Jackson alongside abolitionist Frederick Douglass as positive role models for “effective leadership in a constitutional republic.”

They also promote the myth that southern states fought the Civil War over “states’ rights.” One board member even called slavery a “side issue.” But official declarations of secession from that era explicitly contradict such claims, making clear that southern states left the union to protect slavery and white supremacy. The Texas Declaration offers one of the clearest examples:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

But students won’t learn about that in the whitewashed version of history promoted by the current curriculum standards.

The standards also suggest that civil rights gains may have had negative consequences for society, international treaties are an anti-American conspiracy and separation of church and state really isn’t a key constitutional principle.

These and numerous other examples have appalled historians. Even scholars working with the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute have criticized the Texas standards as “a politicized distortion of history” filled with “misrepresentations at every turn.”

We saw these troubling standards reflected in the textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas in 2014. How the textbooks treat religion offers a clear example.

Students certainly should learn about the profound influence religion has had in American history. But as the Fordham review points out, the board wildly exaggerated and in some cases even invented influences.

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For example, the standards absurdly list Moses alongside great political and legal thinkers like John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu as a major influence on the American founding. One textbook tells students that the roots of democratic government in the United States date back “thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon.”

Historians have rejected these claims for good reason. The writings of the American founders themselves clearly contradict them. Moreover, the forms of government mentioned in the Bible are monarchy and theocracy, not democracy.

It’s important that our public schools prepare students to be informed citizens with a fact-based understanding of our nation’s history and government. We can’t heal divisions and tackle other challenges that persist in our country otherwise.

That common understanding is harder to reach when politicians hijack our children’s public schools to promote their own ideological agendas. The result is indoctrination, not education.

So, the state board this year must clean up the mess left by board members from eight years ago. It’s time to get politics out of our public school classrooms.

Countryman is a history professor at Southern Methodist University. Lester is an associate professor in political science at the University of Mary Washington.

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