Monthly Archives: July 2009

Politicizing history in Texas and elsewhere

Via Robert Farley, the Wall Street Journal reports on a fight over the history curriculum in Texas schools, which seems to be just a bit politically charged. For example, this proposal:

  • Replace references to America’s “democratic” values with “republican” values

While this is the only one that’s blatantly partisan, the conservatives on the board are also pushing to de-emphasize the contributions of women and minorities, and to get more religious content into the curriculum.
This is pretty unsurprising, and not just because it’s Texas. Probably history curricula have been politicized everywhere, since the dawn of time. Recently I read a book in which the author visited a number of post-Civil-War monuments, and was disgusted at the respect accorded to various Confederate figures in the South. Which in turn reminded me of my experience learning Civil War history in a Virginia public school, where guys like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were described with a kind of heroic aura about them. There was a real effort to obscure the fact that they were fighting for a truly evil cause: I still remember that when we started the Civil War segment, the teacher explained that we might have heard that the war was over slavery, but this was a naive picture. Instead, we were told that the Civil War arose from a set of complex causes related to states’ rights, such as disputes over congressionally-imposed tariffs. Later on in my education, there was a moment of realization that, wait a minute, it totally was about slavery!
And this was a good school in not-at-all-Southern Fairfax County! I can only assume that this was part of the state curriculum. And in a way it’s understandable that Virginia would want to whitewash the most shameful chapter in its history, but it’s not just about that. It’s about white supremacists being able to put up statues of Stonewall Jackson and fly the Confederate flag in the name of their “heritage”.
Another example: after living in Virginia I briefly attended a private school in Houston whose mascot was the Rebel (as in Confederate). And while I was there, there was talk of changing the mascot of this nearly all-white school. It’s amazing to me the outcry that went up among students and alums, who thought this was political correctness gone wild, and couldn’t see what was so offensive about naming the football team after people who fought on behalf of slavery. And of course the vast majority of them weren’t racists, they just didn’t think about the Civil War in moral terms, partly because of the way the Civil War is taught in the South.
But as much as I love to bash the South, this kind of thing goes on everywhere: look at how the American Revolution is taught in the U.S. versus in Britain. Or the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over Japan’s whitewashing of their own war atrocities. So what Texas is doing now is just par for the course (not that it shouldn’t be opposed).