the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

History, Now Without Context!

In human behavior on February 15, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Russell Shorto’s report on the Texas Board of Education’s latest review of public school history standards in The New York Times Magazine was a necessary and thorough attempt to contextualize a debate that often falls into the category of ideological mudslinging. Where others may have foregrounded the clash between the secular and religious, Mr. Shorto uses his intro to lay out other critical implications of the Board’s decisions:

The state’s $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State.

This is not to say questions—how should the religious persuasions of our country’s founders be introduced into history classes? Are we a Christian nation if our kids’ textbooks say we are?—of greater moral weight go unanswered in Shorto’s piece. An assembly line of experts file through the  proceedings in Texas, providing arguments both elegant and insidious for/against a Christian rewriting of US History. But they seem wholly disengaged from the project of providing teachers and students with a curriculum that invites historical investigation and debate.

Instead, the statistics about textbook sales and the revelation that most of the Texas Board have not worked or studied  in the field of Education suggests that the Standards Debate tells a different story: Our public school system has become increasingly constrained by individuals’ ideology and the institutionalized prescriptions of special interest groups.

(Shorto’s strongest sections find teachers and school administrators tirelessly working on new curriculum guideline compromises, only to watch them discarded by Board members.)

Yes, kids and teachers need guidelines, but when experimentation is replaced with unquestionable curricular scripture, you lose more than institutional adaptability—you jettison a generation’s inquisitiveness and drive to learn.

Which is why the arguments of those wishing to rewrite US History with Christian values assuming the same role that the Invisible Hand of the Market plays in Economics textbooks are ultimately misguided: An ahistorical, static ideal becomes the lens through which students are supposed to interpret a past defined by, and made exceptional by, its dynamism and diversity.

History, and the teaching of history, as much as the Christian Board members would like to deny it, is not pre-formed and handed down on a tablet—or a binder of learning objectives.

UPDATE: The New Republic‘s great new blog, “the Book,” published a fantastic essay from their archive (c. 1916!) about art education in America. Money quote:

All this has been done with the best will in the world, by men curious and skilful, well instructed in the “best” of all time. It has been a conscientious following of an ideal of beauty. We are just beginning to discover uneasily how false that ideal is. Art to most of us has come to mean painting instead of the decoration and design and social setting that would make significant our objective life. Our moral sense has made us mad for artistic “rightness.” What we have got out of it is something much worse than imitation. It is worship.


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