Note: In response to reader comments, the author of this piece has written a follow-up post, What really caused the Civil War?
It looks like the cliché, “history is written by the victors” is not necessarily true in Texas. This fall, five million public school students in Texas began using new social studies textbooks based on state academic standards that barely touch on the shameful history of racial segregation, do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws, and soften the role that slavery played in the US Civil War. A chapter on immigration in a high school textbook entitled, World Geography, even refers to African slaves as “workers.”
Why is the school board in Texas making these kinds of changes? What does this mean for these children and their understanding of our shared history?
The war that never ended
Ever since the Civil War ended in defeat and Radical Reconstruction was forced upon the South, conservatives in Texas and other Southern states have made a concerted effort to change the historical narrative from one of plunder and enslavement to one based on a noble and heroic campaign of self-defense against an oppressive central government.
This phenomenon is reflected in the recent uptick in use of the Confederate flag (whose symbolism of white supremacy directly influenced the Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof), in the scores of public monuments glorifying the deeds of Southern generals, and the popularity of Civil War reenactments (many of which carry a racist undertone). Now, it’s also reflected in the changes that boards of education are making to school curricula in these states.
Don’t mess with Texas—about slavery
In an example of what might be called “whitewashing,” the Texas State Board of Education’s (TBOE) guidelines for teaching lists “sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery” (in that order) as the causes of the Civil War. Pat Hardy, a Republican member of the TBOE, stated, “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”
However, the declarations of secession for Texas and every other Southern state explicitly state that they were leaving the union to protect the rights of white citizens to own black slaves. The 1861 Declaration of Causes “which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union” articulates the darker agenda of “states’ rights”:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
These declarations and the scholarly consensus on slavery’s primary role in starting the Civil War leave little room for debate that our history books need to reflect the truth about slavery.
Texas gets a “D” in history
In shaping the state curriculum and history standards according to its political views, the TBOE has at best ignored the expertise of historians and scholars and at worst shown hostility and contempt for them.
The Fordham Institute’s The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011 points out that the TBOE consistently “distorts and suppresses less triumphal or more nuanced aspects of our past,” like slavery and segregation. Texas, whose history standards are given a rating of “D,” is particularly guilty of presenting a “politicized distortion of history” based on an “evangelical Christian right agenda promising to inculcate biblical principles, patriotic values, and American exceptionalism.”
David McCullough, a famous historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning author, notes, “We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate.” Unfortunately, given the level of meddling by school boards in Texas and other states, it appears that our ability to discern historical truth from speculative fiction will only get worse in the coming years.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.
More from this author: What really caused the Civil War?
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