The Texas curriculum controversy

A reader asked me to comment on this story, on how some historians are apparently upset over the new history curriculum mandated for the state of Texas by the Texas board of education. I’ve not been following the story. My sole exposure to the controversy was a completely pointless argument about whether Friedrich Hayek’s work was important enough to merit inclusion in the economics curriculum. (Answer: I’m not sure that you need to be studying particular economists at all. But if you are, Hayek is obviously one of the giants, if only for his work on price signals. Liberals don’t like him because his work argues against central planning.) In regards to history I’ve read nothing, but I can make a few quick comments.

First, the very fact that there is a controversy argues against centralized control of education. If curriculum choices are made locally, schools can decide for themselves what to teach. If a particular school makes a bad choice, it’s no big deal because its influence is limited. Unfortunately, some big states (notably California and Texas, and no doubt some others) centralize curriculum decisions for their entire state. That’s a horrible idea, and this illustrates why.

Second, the story is not very helpful in explaining what the board is doing that historians disagree with. The story contains not a single quotation of any historian making a specific objection. Instead, the story relies on vague, unsourced, indirect quotes (“historians say. . .”). That sort of weaselly writing is first cousin to the standard ploy for editorializing in a news story (“critics say. . .”).

Third, as to the substance, the article only mentions a few specific points and I have to guess what the controversy is:

  • The curriculum plays down the importance of Thomas Jefferson. If true, that’s pretty stupid. The debate between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians was very important in the early years of the republic. Even though Hamilton ultimately won the debate, I don’t see how you can tell the story without Jefferson. Plus, Jefferson was president for two terms. But I’m trusting the Post’s description here. If, on the other hand, the curriculum merely says that Hamilton’s vision won out over Jefferson’s, it’s no more than the truth.
  • The curriculum questions the separation of church and state. This is too vague to respond to. Certainly there was no such separation in most of the states, and whether it was intended to exist in its modern form even at the federal level isn’t clear. I could easily see this being good or bad, depending on what it actually says.
  • The curriculum says the government was infiltrated by communists during the Cold War. This is no more than the truth. If anything, the curriculum makes a mistake by relying on just the Venona decrypts. Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks (hand-copied from the KGB’s files) are even more conclusive. On the other hand, if the curriculum tries to use that fact to rehabilitate McCarthy, I disagree with that. I’m not aware of any evidence that McCarthy’s witch-hunt did any good at all to balance the harm it did, and even if it did, the ends do not justify the means.
  • The curriculum says Reagan should get more attention. Duh.
  • The curriculum does not include hip-hop. I really don’t care. Call me a philistine, but I don’t see why trends in music should be part of the mandatory history curriculum in the first place.
  • The curriculum places Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address alongside Lincoln’s. What do you expect from a southern state? Actually, it might be interesting to contrast the views of north and south this way. (Or perhaps not. I’ve never read Davis’s address so I can’t say.) Anyway, it seems possibly defensible. It’s not as though they’re putting something alongside the Gettysburg Address.

In short, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Texas board of education is doing something stupid here, but I’m not going to take the Washington Post’s word for it. In any case, get rid of central control over schooling and the whole controversy disappears.

2 Responses to The Texas curriculum controversy

  1. “If a particular school makes a bad choice, it’s no big deal because its influence is limited.”

    — But it’s an awfully big deal for the people in *that* school district. Isn’t that what you were worried about here:

  2. K. Crary says:

    That’s true enough. You can narrow the influence of incompetent or corrupt government authorities, but they will still be screwing someone. Woodland Hills is a good example of an authority whose influence ought to be narrowed. (In fact, Woodland Hills was created by the involuntary amalgamation of several smaller districts.)

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