Saturday, March 20, 2010

Low Standards

For the past week I've been mulling over this article on the Texas school board's revision of the state's history standards, trying to sort out some conflicting reactions to it. Some of what was done seems, at least on the surface, eminently reasonable. But other actions taken by the board raise serious concerns that call into question all of their changes.

One of my colleagues noted to me, with some alarm, that one of the changes was that "the ideas in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address are to be laid side by side with Abraham Lincoln's speeches." On substance, I have no trouble with that at all. Such a compare and contrast exercise can be quite an effective teaching tool. Looking at the argument that does not carry the day can sometimes be much more instructive than the one that does. When I teach the debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, for example, I give a lot of attention to the arguments of the Anti-Federalists.

Another one of the changes that has raised hackles is the removal of Thomas Jefferson "from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone." Again, this one doesn't bother me much substantively. One can make a strong argument that Jefferson was not a particularly original political thinker and that the inclusion of other thinkers, particularly John Locke, covers much of the same ground. The list still includes other Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

Other aspects of the Texas changes are not particularly susceptible to benign interpretation, however. Another change that was made to the standards, which were proposed by a panel of teachers, was an "amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism." Any attempt to equate the wholesale internment of the Japanese during World War II with the case-by-case internment of Germans and Italians amounts to falsifying the historical record. Although there were relatively few people in the U.S. of Japanese heritage, virtually all of them, about 110,000 people, were interned. By contrast, though there were far more German and Italian Americans, about 11,000 Germans were interned, and only about 1,500 Italians. The facts here are clear: Japanese were interned as a group, Germans and Italians were interned on an individual basis. It is fair to say that all three groups experienced violations of civil liberties, but no reasonable understanding would discount racism as a factor in the difference in the way Japanese were treated.

The attempt to burnish the reputation of Joe McCarthy falls into the same category. Another of the school boards changes requires "that the history of McCarthyism include 'how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.'" I happen to have read the book on the Venona papers that is referenced here. The secret government records do indeed show that there was Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government--during World War II. They also show that this influence was ferreted out (by the very intelligence gathered by Venona) and that by late 1946, the problem had been effectively dealt with. McCarthy did not begin making his reckless and irresponsible charges until 1950, and he said not that there had been communist infiltration in the past, but that there currently was. The Venona papers do not support those McCarthyite attacks. This proposed treatment of McCarthy also amounts to falsifying history.

What these last two examples have in common is that both attempt to take a fairly shameful chapter in American history and whitewash it. This is of a piece with the attitude of American exceptionalism that I wrote about recently. The proponents of these changes either do not know the facts of Japanese, German, and Italian internment, or they willfully ignore them. They either do not know what the Venona papers actually say, or they do know and don't care because it serves their rather overtly politicized agenda. In either case, they show their unfitness to set standards for what children need to learn. The Texas school board should first educate itself.

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