Rewriting History… For the Better, This Time

AP Photo/Ben Birchall

Rewriting History… For the Better, This Time

The new exam for high school Advanced Placement U.S. History students has raised an outcry among conservatives from Texas to Georgia.

Ken Mercer, a conservative member of the Texas School Board of Education, said during an August 4 conference call that the purpose of history in schools is to “teach students to be proud American citizens,” and that means a strict emphasis on the Founding Fathers, the military exploits of national icons and the depiction of the colonization, settlement and Christianization of North America as a great achievement. The call was organized by the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee in partnership with the American Principles in Action.

The Republican National Committee has passed a resolution asking for a Congressional investigation into the exam, stating, “The Framework [curriculum of what students should learn in AP US History courses] presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th – 19th – century settlers.”

In an open letter to the College Board, which publishes the AP exam and the new Curriculum Framework, the groups American Principles in Action and Concerned Women for America wrote, “The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’”

Patricia Hardy, another Texas school board member, complained that AP U.S. history teachers were being asked “to emphasize how the Native American population was basically demolished by white settlers without equally emphasizing how Native Americans attacked white settlers,” wrote the Dallas Observer,paraphrasing her comments.

What the Framework actually states, among other concepts related to Indian country, is that students should be able to “analyze the effects that migration, disease, and warfare had on the American Indian population after contact with Europeans,” and understand that “the English eventually sought to establish colonies based on agriculture, sending relatively large numbers of men and women to acquire land and populate their settlements, while having relatively hostile relationships with American Indians. Further, reads the Framework, “continuing contact with Europeans increased the flow of trade goods and diseases into and out of Native communities, stimulating cultural and demographic changes.”

The exam’s detractors are correct in saying that the Framework interprets Manifest Destiny to mean something very different from what it meant, for example, in the long-running (1957-1965) and very popular TV series “Wagon Train.” Dean Chavers, Lumbee, director of the scholarship and school improvement organization Catching the Dream in Albuquerque, and a former member of the Minority Panel of The College Board, is working on a book about the 300 massacres that occurred in Indian country between the early 17th century and 1911. He says that the TV series depicts no fewer than 3,000 attacks by American Indians on wagon trains carrying white settlers west. But in fact, he says, those attacks, occurred only about a dozen times. The “racial slaughter” of American Indians carried out by Europeans wiped out entire tribes in Texas and all across the West. “There was a very strong determination to rid the whole continent of Indians, and that was part of Manifest Destiny. The people who say the Indians were the real killers are just flat wrong,” says Chavers.

Why the Texas School Board Matters

There are only three federally-recognized and one state-recognized tribes in Texas. But Texas is one of about 20 “adoption” states, in which the state board of education decides which textbooks school districts may purchase. Publishers submit their textbooks to the board, which reviews them, asks for changes and “adopts” those it considers suitable.

Producing textbooks is big business in this country. Only three publishers—Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill Education—account for 80 percent of textbook sales, notes the National Education Association. Getting a textbook onto students’ desks is enormously expensive, with costs for writers, editors, consultants, researchers, artwork, permissions, production, printing, binding and now, digitizing. Publishers cannot afford to have a state like Texas, with a $750-million budget for textbooks and technology, reject its products, and that gives the school board the power to influence the content of the books, which are sold all across the country, not just in Texas.

The Texas SBOE is currently evaluating social studies textbooks for adoption in the next school year. An independent review by scholars recruited by the Texas Freedom Network found that “a number of U.S. History textbooks [being considered by the board] suffer from a general lack of attention to the experiences of Native American peoples and cultures and sometimes include biased or misleading information.”

Texas’s influence may slowly be waning. Two years ago the state legislature decided to let school districts use state money for any textbooks they wanted, but so far most of the state’s $750-million annual textbook budget that has been spent has gone to buy books on the state board’s approved list. And until that changes, what happens at the Texas School Board of Education matters a lot.