Students in Texas learning about the Harlem Renaissance will read in their high school history textbooks that there were some critics who disparaged the output of the cultural movement. High school students in California will read in their history textbooks that there has been legislation passed over the years that restricts the right to bear arms laid out the second amendment to the Constitution, but that detail is omitted in the Texas version of the exact same textbook.
These are two of the discrepancies between high school textbooks that the New York Times found in an analysis of the books used in Texas and California schools. Their report shows how the highly political process that goes into approving textbooks for American schools can alter the way history is conveyed and interpreted. This isn’t news to anyone who has seen the great documentary The Revisionaries, which takes viewers behind the scenes in the ongoing ideological battles waged over how Texas textbooks are written. Still, the report details how children growing up in different parts of the country will emerge from high school with subtle, if significant differences in how they understand this country.
Here’s how it happens:
The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.
Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.
A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.
All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.
While political biases can affect the way history is presented in textbooks, educators say they are better than they have in the past, when major topics like slavery and the Civil War were white washed and myths about this country’s racism were perpetuated:
Both Texas and California volumes deal more bluntly with the cruelty of the slave trade, eschewing several myths that were common in textbooks for generations: that some slave owners treated enslaved people kindly and that African-Americans were better off enslaved than free. The books also devote more space to the women’s movement and balance the narrative of European immigration with stories of Latino and Asian immigrants.
“American history is not anymore the story of great white men,” said Albert S. Broussard, a history professor at Texas A&M University and an author of both the Texas and California editions of McGraw-Hill’s textbooks.
The Times report goes into more detail about how subjects like race, immigration, gender, sexuality and the economy are presented in the same textbooks printed for different states. It is worth checking out.