Teaching the textbook controversy

by Rob Horning

13 March 2010


Steve Benen links to a NYT article about curriculum changes at Texas high school social studies classes. Here’s the lede:

After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

I am somewhat apathetic. It’s not as though the curriculum anywhere is objective and unbiased; the more neutral it claims to be, the more perniciously hidden the ideology is in practice. So with the situation in Texas, the bias (admittedly ridiculous) has been made more overt and easier to teach against if you a subversive teacher and are so inclined. This would have the laudable effect of illustrating for students how the can’t automatically trust official-looking books and must learn to read everything critically. And in those districts where the books are taught straight, well, what were those students going to learn in institutions anyway? High school is not about disseminating truth; it’s about indoctrination in the abiding mores of a community, as well as training people to be meek workers in the hierarchical systems they will encounter throughout life.

You can’t blame the Christians for wanting to Christianize the school systems they control. Once you accept that school are for ideological indoctrination, then it becomes a matter of who has the power to use the institutions to suit their aims. “Truth” is simply a tactical ruse to gain power for your ideology. The Texas Christians are right in thinking that a counter-ideology has been taught in schools, and are simply implementing the logic of power by wanting to substitute theirs for it. (It’s like what Lenin said, you look for the person who will benefit and um, um…) But they are merely relativizing what they probably hold as absolutely true by introducing it into the welter of democratic politics. One lesson people can take away from the school-board conflict is that Christian ideology is open to a vote, and that Christianity must build consensus in the same Machiavellian ways as politicians.

These efforts to control textbooks as though that will ensure control over the kids who pretend to read them and teachers who pretend to teach them seem sort of desperate, as though the books were to blame for the waning popularity and unreality of some of their views. To paraphrase Thomas Merton (and also a rebel princess from some movie), the more they tighten their ideological grip, the more students will slip through their fingers. I mean, they are dealing with people who say things like this:

“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.

Yes. And historians—man, they have historical explanations for everything. And mathematicians, all they ever talk about is math. Where is the Scripture?

I suppose I am skeptical that people take textbooks as some sort of gospel, but that may be because I have always had autodidactic tendencies and figured that what was in textbooks was pabulum for indifferent students and fodder for rebellion for anyone else who was engaged.

The ideological takeover is a classic enhance-the-contradictions moment; it’s so blatant an effort that it makes the underlying problems self-evident. The heavy-handed efforts to safeguard hegemony exposes how frail it has become. This sort of inanity should prompt sane people to withdrawal from the system altogether if they can, or at least put in place local forms of resistance to the tyranny. It calls the phony objectivity of schools to everyone’s attention, including those who ordinarily wouldn’t give a shit.

Anyway, some of these proposals don’t strike me as all that outrageous.

In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”

The double-talk about capitalism is pretty dumb, but kids should be taught about the sort of neoliberalism that has actually shaped policy for the past few decades. They should understand Hayek’s idea about the market as a system for conveying information. They should understand Friedman’s conflation of liberty with economic freedom of choice. At that point you can constructively critique these ideas, or reject them as part of institutional learning. If teachers were suddenly mandated to teach Frankfurt school theory in high schools, then those ideas would truly be dead.


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