April 05, 2010

On March 12, the Texas State Board of Education voted along party lines to revise the state’s social studies curriculum. The new standards for history textbooks, which reflect the board’s conservative bent, have elicited howls from the left for what many are calling historical revisionism. Among the amendments to the curriculum is a greater emphasis on our country’s Judeo-Christian origins, the inclusion of the Venona papers to give context to Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist investigations, and more space devoted to the conservative revolution of the 80s and 90s.

It’s hard not to chuckle while reading the teary-eyed ululations that have been spewing out of the Huffington Post and its like over the past few weeks. After all, liberals and progressives have been revising school curricula to their bleeding hearts”€™ content for decades. The cry of “€œtextbook massacre”€ at the first serious set of counter-revisions sounds an awful lot like sour grapes. However, it would be foolish to think that simply replacing liberal bias with conservative bias is going to somehow improve students”€™ education.

Is there any fundamental difference between Christians seeking to sideline the Enlightenment’s role in the American Revolution in order to avoid the issue of separation of church and state and liberals using textbooks as platforms to preach about every disenfranchised minority from Hispanics to Seminole Indians for the purpose of attacking Western culture? I can”€™t, for the life of me, see one. Both camps are trying to propagandize their respective ideology to our school children.

The problem here isn”€™t that this month the Yankee Doodlers want to gloss over the darker aspects of the Vietnam War or the religious right wants to advertise John Calvin over Tom Jefferson. Next month some progressive is bound to be calling for the inclusion of Marcus Garvey or cheer-leading for a list of great American transsexuals or some other such nonsense.

What the zealots on either side of this tug-of-war for our nation’s textbooks seem to be forgetting, or ignoring, is that a government-approved textbook is a dumb way to teach history in the first place. And, furthermore, this entire hullabaloo amounts to no more than the equivalent of the difference between answer B and answer C on question number 47 of some multiple-choice test the average kid won”€™t remember an hour after taking.

“The best textbook, to my mind at least, would be one that, if anything, deliberately includes false information.”

While textbook publishers and their government sponsors nitpick over whether Phyllis Schlafly is in this year and Daniel Boone is out, students in classrooms across the country yawn over textbooks with language so dumbed-down it approaches baby talk and then go home to consult Wikipedia any time they have a question about, well, anything.

I”€™m not suggesting that students should be learning history through Wikipedia. I”€™m suggesting that the social studies textbook, as we”€™ve come to know it, has been made largely irrelevant by the vast number of resources easily available on the Web, and that, if our education system doesn”€™t start emphasizing the basics of information analysis and criticism in social studies curricula, it”€™ll be churning out graduates who will accept without question every entry they read on Wikipedia and search result they find through Google.

Does anyone believe we”€™re cultivating a nation of critical thinkers by expecting students to regurgitate the information in a mandated textbook? Of course not—critical thinking is promoted by the encouragement of scrutiny, not memorization. Naturally, a student will have a tough go of it if he or she doesn”€™t know the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, but learning that proven fact is a far cry from being force-fed highly contested assertions regarding the intellectual origins of that great document.

The best textbook, to my mind at least, would be one that, if anything, deliberately includes false information. Students would be expected to cross-reference textbook entries with other sources to discover which information is false and which is sound. Grades wouldn”€™t be determined by “€œcorrect”€ answers, so much as a student’s ability to make critical judgments based on an analysis of a number of different sources. Unfortunately, this method of pedagogy is a tough sell these days, particularly because it requires teachers who are interested in doing more than just handing out Scantron forms.

The false assumption underlying this entire debate has been that the ideologues on either side actually want young people thinking. It’s obvious they”€™re more interested in rewriting history to fit their own assumptions than ensuring students gain the skills to intelligently question the world around them. In this context, one wonders if the children who want to learn wouldn”€™t be better off skipping school and heading to their public library.


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