On Sept. 14, the Dallas Morning News reported that the Texas Board of Education had enacted sweeping changes to the state’s history curriculum. Of particular note were the decisions to highlight America’s supposed “Christian heritage” and “civic leaders” like Rev. Billy Graham and Andrew Carnegie and to remove Hellen Keller and Hillary Clinton from the curriculum entirely. Supporters argue that the changes better reflect Texan values and priorities, while opponents argue that they serve to put Christianity and conservatism on a pedestal. Was the board correct in making these changes, and what effect could similar changes in other states have on national education? 

Prof. Abigail Cooper (HIST) 

To those immediately appalled by this story — save your energy. The "Texas School Board Passes Controversial Changes to Curriculum" crops up periodically, like "War on Christmas" pieces, to stoke polarization, reminding all that Texas is conservative (Beto O'-who?). This story is, first and foremost, political posturing from a board that no longer holds the same sway over textbook publishers that it did in the 1990s, and media outlets snatch it up, because it’s in their motor memory. Within increasingly purple Texas, a 2011 law made the board's decisions optional for school districts to adopt, diminishing the "Texas market" as buyer of a single textbook. Smaller states that once reflexively adopted Texas-approved textbooks, because they were mass-produced, now order their own books, which are more easily customizable (everything is digital), and the publisher's template is already modeled after the Common Core. I don't want to diminish the disappointment a history professor feels over students being spoon-fed tendentious narratives as facts, but I do see this particular terrain as potentially turning into a "Northeastern Liberals Spurn Southern School Board's Backwardness" trap that I do not want to fall into. Even in high school classrooms that are considered “liberal,” rarely is slavery and race central to the history of America. Even the very borders of what we call “America” should be up for debate, but this story isn’t about critical inquiry or multiplicitous voices, it’s about what the narrative of nationalism should look like. My question is: If we engage in debate over who is in and who is out, are we implicitly confirming that there should be some single national narrative? My view is that the stories we tell about ourselves will perennially serve as a canvas for identity and debate, but a unilaterally-dictated top-down model of historical information is already in the past. 

Prof. Abigail Cooper is an assistant professor of History, specializing in the study of American slavery and emancipation and the Civil War and Reconstruction. 

Prof. Laura Miller (SOC) 

School curricula have long been an arena for political battles over social values. I surmise some of the decisions made in this particular case are an intentional provocation and assertion of political dominance by a Board of Education largely sympathetic to the Christian right. In my view, the state should not be micromanaging school curricula. It should set broad standards (such as knowledge about particular periods of American history), but content is best left to teachers who know the interests, strengths and knowledge gaps of their own students. I’m also sympathetic to the working group’s desire to pare down the number of recommended historical figures to teach. A “Great Person” approach is not necessarily the best way to learn about historical events and processes, since children are taught that history only includes individuals who achieve fame rather than all people and institutions of a historical era.

Prof. Laura Miller is the chair of the Sociology department and specializes in the study of industries defined by moral commitments to their products. 

Emily Glovin ’19

Our education system owes a lot to religion. Early American schools were often run and financed by churches, and reformers cited their Christian values as a reason to educate all students, no matter their income level. However, stripping Clinton, Keller and other significant leaders from schools in exchange for promoting a “Christian heritage” presents a one-sided view of history. In the face of rising immigration and a fiercely partisan climate, the BoE is attempting to push through standards that homogenize a population of increasingly diverse students and promote a singular acceptable political ideology. Though Boards of Education legislate locally, Texas has a disproportionately large effect on the national curriculum. In order to increase their sales, textbook companies tend to cater towards the curricula of larger states, such as Texas or California. As a result, these new standards could have a sweeping effect on the entire country’s classrooms. 

Emily Glovin ’19 is majoring in American Studies and Sociology and minoring in Education Studies. 

Sam Sano ’19

I believe that the Texas Board of Education was incorrect in making these changes to the state’s history curriculum. For one, it is improper for the state to even seem to be prioritizing a specific religion (eg, Christianity). Furthermore, not only does their ranking system make little sense to me, but they do not even seem to follow it completely. There are high-scoring figures that don’t make it into the curriculum, while certain much lower-scoring ones do. I also believe that similar changes in other states could have a disastrous effect on national education. If states continue to be given tremendous amounts of leeway in crafting their curricula, certain topics we consider important could be left out in certain states. Furthermore, if states really do put their values into the education system, our country could very well become even more polarized than it already is.

Sam Sano ’19 is majoring in Politics and minoring in Legal Studies and History of Ideas.