Throughout nearly all of U.S. history, the state of Texas has generated its fair share of controversy. Recently, the state has come under a great degree of scrutiny due to numerous and significant changes implemented by the Texas Board of Education regarding the curriculum arrangement and standards of elementary, middle and high school U.S. history classes. 

The latest series of modifications, which were voted on mid-September, concern the way U.S. history is taught in Texas. They seek to “streamline” what students are learning regarding important and influential figures in U.S. history, as well as the intellectual and philosophical basis for the establishment of a country independent from Great Britain.

Some of the more mild changes include the elimination of Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from the list of important Americans that Texas students are required to learn about. An argument can be made for eliminating figures whose degree of importance within the context of the history of the U.S.  can be reasonably debated. 

Hillary Clinton is a former first lady, senator, and the first female presidential nominee, but it is theoretically possible for one to have a deep understanding of U.S. history without learning about her. The same could be argued about Helen Keller, who, while an inspirational figure, is not all that game-changing in the grand scheme of American history. 

Perhaps time learning about historical figures is better spent learning about the Roosevelts or Ronald Reagan, presidents who actions in office permanently altered the course of the country. 

At first glance, this appears to be the intent of the Texas Board of Education: trimming down the curriculum for the sake of time and practicality, which could very well benefit millions of history students throughout the state. However, a deeper, more nuanced exploration of some other changes the school board has made in addition to similar actions in the past show numerous exaggerations and outright fallacies within the curriculum.  

What can be seen is an ongoing desire to manipulate the school history into eliminating the more murky aspects of American history, twisting the state and country’s history as a whole into appearing more one-sided. While it is legally permissible to sanitize the curriculum, such pedagogy has no place in a history classroom. It is dangerous not only because of their lack of objectivity, but also because whitewashing can alter an individual’s perception of facts: something counterintuitive, anti-intellectual and dangerous.

In 2010, numerous elementary-school textbooks from differing publication series contained a questionable description of the causes of the American Civil War. According to the Texas Freedom Network, the books de-emphasized slavery as a leading cause and made it appear equal to sectionalism, states’ rights and tyranny on the part of the government. It is a known fact that slavery was the most prominent and leading cause of the war, and to put less weight on it in teaching one of the most dynamic events in the history of the country creates numerous problems down the road.

While a case can be made for sectionalism, states’ rights and tyranny on the part of the government to be a cause, the fact that slavery, an inherently wrong and immoral way of living, is de-emphasized here is indeed troubling. Such a tainted understanding of one of the darkest periods in American history is quite disconcerting, as any elementary school student that learns the Civil War in this way may have difficulty grasping the extent to which institutional racism and discrimination exist in this country both in the present as well as the past. It could potentially desensitize one towards quite disturbing issues of human rights, positioning them as less pressing issues and of less importance within a curriculum centered around the history of one individual country. 

Indeed, one of the dominant reasons the Confederate flag is still being flown is not racism, but genuine ignorance about the meaning of the symbol in the context of the way of life the Southern states were fighting for. Such a method of teaching could leave an entire generation vulnerable to grave misinformation, which could in turn, over the long run, alter exactly how the country views and speaks about a divisive, disturbing, yet necessary-to-understand period.

An equally disconcerting dimension to the changes undertaken by the Texas board involves the requirement for students to identify, as opposed to evaluate, the changes brought about by Civil Rights-era activism and legislation.

What is particularly troubling about this change is the degree of power and threshold for intellectual pursuit put on a given student. When one is asked to simply identify, they can simply look within a textbook and regurgitate the information read. The act of evaluation, however, forces one to engage in an analysis of the information they read; to question what is presented and to form unique, distinctive ideas and, most importantly, to simply think. Eliminating the “thinking” aspect of a study in America’s system of race relations and human rights constitutes an outright deprivation of a student’s ability to think for themselves. This is underscored by a deprivation of thought in an area of study that, to truly understand, demands some degree of introspection and subjective analysis. 

The Texas school board’s seizure of this learning opportunity resembles an attempt to whitewash the state’s history, accomplished by tricking students into thinking they understand this given area of academia simply from reading information which may or may not be false.

Without a doubt, this change in curriculum is contrary to the very institutions of civilized debate and study that make America such a unique country and undermines the very idea of freedom of thought as a core educational and human right.