Metro Views: Curriculum battles

It is a rare September indeed when there is not some controversy over textbooks or curriculum.

American public schools are ready to open for the new academic year, fully prepared for reading, writing and righteous indignation. It is a rare September indeed when there is not some controversy over textbooks or curriculum. “Back to school” usually means back to the battleground. This year is no exception.
In Helena, Montana, the school board has been struggling with a proposed health curriculum that would include sex education, always a contentious subject.
However significant sex ed is in Montana, it pales in comparison to Texas. This is a banner year for Texas conservatives whose new social studies curriculum is not only ideological, it is inaccurate. So say some faith-affiliated organizations, including the Anti- Defamation League (ADL); some members of Congress; and more than 1,200 history scholars from universities across the US who signed a letter stating that the Texas board’s revisions to the state’s history and social studies curricula distort the historical record.
A Democratic board member was trounced when she introduced an amendment requiring that students study the reasons “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”
Conservative Texas board members have said they are simply adding “balance” and leveling the field against the liberals who influenced the curricula in the past. In the name of balance, for instance, Texas managed to downplay Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third president of the US, and who crafted the term “separation between church and state” – the idea that is the backbone of religious freedom in the US. But in the Texas canon, Jefferson was displaced by, among others, Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Catholic priest-philosopher, and John Calvin, the 16th century French Protestant theologian.
LAST MONTH, a Texas congresswoman, Eddie Bernice Johnson, sponsored a resolution in the US House of Representatives saying that the curriculum standards adopted by the Texas State Board of Education do not accurately portray the struggle by minorities and women to achieve civil and equal rights in the US. Worse, she charged, elected officials on the Texas board “disregarded many academically based recommendations and approved politically biased standards within the curriculum that are outside of mainstream scholarship.” The curriculum, Texas-style, will mean extolling capitalism, Christianity, the military and contemporary Republican political figures, according to various published accounts. Last year, Texas’s target was not social studies; it was science and Darwin. The state curriculum was changed to give less attention to – among other topics – evolution.
This is no small thing. A politicized school board’s decisions will affect what and how nearly five million children in Texas will be taught in the next decade.
And Texas has a far broader reach than the borders of the Lone Star State, because schoolbook publishers tend to follow the leads of their biggest customers.
This gives populous states, like Texas, enormous influence over which textbooks are published.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has called Texas’s handling of social studies standards “a travesty.” “America’s school children cannot be expected to learn accurate history if ideologues are allowed to manipulate the educational process,” he said.
FROM TEXAS to the Turks. Across the country, a federal appellate court in Boston ruled earlier this month that Massachusetts schools can teach the Armenian genocide without presenting the Turkish “contra-genocide” view.
This battle goes back to 1998, when the Massachusetts legislature directed the State Board of Education to prepare an advisory “curriculum guide” for teaching about genocide and human rights. The guide included a section on the Armenian genocide, about which it said: “[I]n the 1890s, and during World War I, the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire destroyed large portions of its Christian Armenian minority population.”
After Turkish complaints, the guide was amended to present the “contra-genocide” view, with sources indicating that the fate of Ottoman Armenians did not reflect a policy of genocide.
Those additional references to pro-Turkish sources were removed after the Armenian community complained. Education Commissioner David Driscoll and the board of education defended the removal of the contra-genocide view by arguing that the state legislature required the board to “address the Armenian genocide and not to debate whether or not [it] occurred.”
The Assembly of Turkish American Associations filed suit against the education commissioner in federal court in 2005. Two federal courts, however, now have ruled that the “contra” literature can be excluded from human rights teaching guidelines.
The Turkish advocates have called this censorship, and contend that it violates students’ First Amendment constitutional right to free speech and rights to “inquire, teach and learn free from viewpoint discrimination.”
The appellate court said, however, that the guide’s referral to sources with a particular viewpoint do not mean that other views are out of bounds for study or discussion.
In Massachusetts, the public schools, backed by the federal courts, have taken a stand for the integrity of human rights education. As Holocaust scholars know, genocide denial has no place in a legitimate human rights curriculum. To include Armenian genocide denial would be the equivalent of allowing Holocaust-denial material in a curriculum.
“Those who deny the Holocaust could sue to challenge the curriculum in every school system that instructs students about the Nazis’ atrocities,” attorneys for the Armenian Assembly of America said in a “friend of the court brief” on behalf of the Massachusetts Department of Education. “This, of course, cannot be right.” Regardless of substance, there is the question of authority. “There is no denying that the State Board of Education may properly exercise curricular discretion,” the appellate court said in the Massachusetts case.
That is what happened in Texas. The board exercised its discretion and now we can look forward to the state-sanctioned skewed education and inculcated ignorance of Texas students. The federal courts have become the guardians of historical honesty in Massachusetts. Maybe they can be prevailed upon to tackle the ideologues in Texas, until the voters there are wise enough to boot them out of the future of schoolchildren.