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History Matters: The High Stakes (and Higher Value) of History

March, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The Texas State Board of Education’s changes to the state’s social studies curriculum have highlighted the political motivations behind the histories that are taught in schools. In response to the board’s conservatism, the left wrings its hands in dismay, the right smiles with vindication, and centrists ask to restore some kind of balance. But we should be concerned about more than political allegiances. There is more at stake than “correct” or “balanced” or “fair” histories. We need to question not only the power of political factions to promote particular visions of history, but also the profit motives that have made some histories more saleable and therefore more powerful than others.

Many are decrying the board’s revisions for putting a “conservative stamp” on the state’s curricula. According to the New York Times, they endorse the superiority of American capitalism, question the history of secular government, and promote Republican political philosophies. Even just a cursory look over other recent commentary on the subject shows how high the stakes are and how strong the divide remains, even outside Texas. Famously conservative Phyllis Schlafly welcomes a turn away from the imposition of liberal “revisionist histories,” while on the other side Diane Ravitch accuses Texas of promoting ignorance. Other commentators worry about wider effects on education. If textbooks modeled on the Texas state curriculum are successful, they could enter classrooms throughout the country. Such is the power of a large state to influence how history is taught across the country.

Ok, how surprised should we be that history is a fraught and disputed subject? Of course it is. It’s invested with diverse meanings that inform personal beliefs and collective identities. We are heavily invested in history, and that shows up in the Texas textbook debates. Nor should we be surprised that groups on either side of the political divide are deeply concerned about what appears in textbooks, each accusing the other of promoting a particular agenda. Both sides, of course, are correct to question what appears in textbooks. We should constantly re-evaluate received knowledge, question “obvious” wisdom, and be prepared to refashion textbook histories. The point that critics and commentators alike miss in this debate, however, is the sale of history. Money over content.

I would like to be able to blame extremists for the bastardization of history. But I can’t, at least I can’t completely. Even those with whom I disagree, whose positions I abhor, are using an existing opportunity to put forward their values and beliefs. That isn’t the fundamental problem here. The content of textbooks is up for debate not because zealots have undermined history, but because publishers want or need to make a profit off of it, and worse still may be less concerned about content than contracts.

Textbooks will be rewritten because Texas represents an enormous market. And books that meet that market’s “needs” stand to gain enormous readerships, and perhaps lucrative ongoing contracts. Their potential influence and authority in schools and among pupils will not necessarily be based on their historical and intellectual rigor, but on their ability to sell to the Texas market. So, the problem might not be so much that history is politicized. That is, after all, why history is important. The problem is that politicized history is up for sale.

Further Reading:

For an overview to this issue see the History News Network roundup of coverage.


This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
26 March 2010.

 

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