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Why We're Still Fighting Over U.S. History

Texas offers a textbook case in how history is (sometimes) just politics by other means.

By Nathan Pippenger

There’s trouble afoot in Texas, where a recent watchdog review of proposed new social studies textbooks for Grades 6-12 has found a whole slew of problems. Some of the findings, reported by The Washington Post, are of the normal right-wing revisionism variety (one-sided celebrations of laissez-faire capitalism, flirtations with neo-Confederate rewritings of Civil War history, undue skepticism regarding the separation of church and state). Others, especially for 2014, are less subtle (there’s at least one reference to “the Negro race”). Of late, this blog has spent a good deal of time covering the politics of knowledge production, which can be a fraught and complex topic. In this case, as the report by the Texas Freedom Network explains, things are a little simpler:

Out of more than 140 individuals appointed to the [textbook review] panels, only three are current faculty members at Texas colleges and universities. TFN has identified more than a dozen other Texas academics—including the chair of the History Department at Southern Methodist University as well as faculty at the University of Texas at Austin—who applied to serve but did not get appointments to the panels.

There are at least two potential problems here. First, it might be that the Texas Board of Education is only picking conservatives to review the textbooks. Now, choosing experts with a point of view to write or evaluate textbooks is not necessarily a problem—first, all the major scholars have points of view; it would be naïve and quixotic to seek historians without them. And competent historians are perfectly capable of distinguishing educational materials from propaganda. In fact, Sean Wilentz’s recent piece in The New Republic actually includes an anecdote about a U.S. history textbook written by (among others) the great liberal historians C. Vann Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.. Woodward chose Schlesinger, the “dogged FDR liberal” (as Wilentz describes him) and longtime Kennedy associate, to write chapters on the New Deal and subsequent decades. No matter how stalwart an FDR supporter, I don’t think Schlesinger (or any competent historian) would have been incapable of writing a history of that era appropriate for schoolchildren. In fact, that actually sounds like it would have been a phenomenal textbook. (Maybe I’ll try to get my hands on a copy!) Point of view is not, in and of itself, a problem—as long as that point of view can be balanced out by the presence of other points of view, or if the writers themselves can nonetheless produce reliable histories.

The second problem, which certainly did not face Woodward and Schlesinger, is the matter of whether Texas’s picks for the review board are actually qualified. Consider, for a moment, that prominent Texas academics were denied posts, and this guy wasn’t:

But the TFN analysis found that political activists and individuals without social studies degrees or teaching experience got places on the panels. One reviewer, Mark Keough, a Republican nominee for the Texas House District 15 seat, got an appointment to a U.S. History panel after being nominated by SBOE chair Barbara Cargill. Keough, a pastor with degrees in theology, has no teaching experience listed on his application form. Keough recently retired from a career in car sales to run a ministry in Cargill’s hometown of The Woodlands and to run for office.

In an interview conducted prior to this year’s primary elections, Keough told the Montgomery County Tea Party that he does not “believe that there is a separation of church and state in the Constitution.”

The findings here offer a near-perfect microcosm of what has happened to American politics and public culture in the last several decades. I noticed recently that a number of prominent academic and popular histories employ metaphors of splintering, fracturing, and breaking. Consider Daniel Rodgers’s prizewinning Age of Fracture, or Rick Perlstein’s popular books on the rise of the conservative movement, with titles like Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. The splintering of the (real or imagined) midcentury American political consensus has been replicated, unsurprisingly, in the way we tell our history as well. Woodward and Schlesinger understood this acutely, as Wilentz notes. Woodward found himself breaking with other historians “in the 1940s and 1950s, when some of his own generation began embracing the idea that political consensus rather than conflict chiefly defined American history.” Both he and Schlesinger adopted the viewpoint of an earlier generation of American historians who emphasized “the primacy of economic and political conflict,” not an imaginary American consensus based on (for example) liberal values. Wilentz speculates that this understanding of the primacy of dissensus in American history “may help to explain why, in their very different ways, Schlesinger and Woodward became involved so consequentially in the politics of their own times.” At a much cruder, but still consequential level, a variation on that struggle is being waged in Texas right now.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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