President's Column: Whitewashing History

21 Sep 2018 10:59 AM | Dane Claussen

By Dianne Bragg, University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa

Football and fall have finally arrived, but temperatures have still been scorching down South. Many of us are looking forward to cooler weather when we meet in Salt Lake City for the 2018 AJHA National Convention. In Alabama, though, historians have good reason to remain hot under the collar.

The Dallas Morning News has reported that the Texas State Board of Education recently voted to remove certain historical figures from their curriculum, which means they will also be absent from future textbooks. Their reasoning is that children are required to learn about too many people from the past, and there needed to be some streamlining. They designed a rubric to determine which historical figures would score high enough to remain in the curriculum and who would be removed. 

After the scores were tallied and the penalties assessed, it was decided that third graders would no longer be forced to learn about one of the most influential and inspirational women in our country’s history, Alabama’s own Helen Keller.

Like a kicker who missed one too many field goals, she just didn’t make the cut.

But, Keller, whose story is recounted in plays, movies, and books, isn’t alone. In fact, some would say she’s in pretty good company, as she is joined by the first woman to run for president as the candidate of a major political party. That’s right, the one who actually won the popular vote only to lose the Electoral College. Gender aside, it seems just the civics lesson involved in how our elections work would be enough to keep Hillary Clinton in the history books.

But, that’s not how they do it in Texas. No, in Texas, history is often influenced by groups such as Texas Values, whose president, Jonathan Saenz, is pleased by the board’s decision to keep textbook passages on Moses’ influence on the Constitution, Arab countries’ responsibility for conflict in the Middle East and the Rev. Billy Graham.

“In Texas, you don't mess with the Alamo and you don't mess with our Christian heritage. We applaud the majority of the State Board of Education for doing the right thing by restoring our foundational rights and history,” Saenz said in a statement reported by the News. “We are prepared to fight to protect these standards all the way to the end.”

All of this should give us pause for several reasons, and foremost among them would be the idea that a partisan religious organization would wield any influence in the area of public school textbooks. But, historically, they do, and that’s not just in Texas. In fact, textbook decisions made in Texas often influence and reflect school board curriculums across the country. 

All said, we are reminded once again about the importance of teaching an inclusive history, one that represents the varied cultural historical heritages of our country. That’s what a public school history education should do in order to teach and inspire American students of all races, genders and religions. Removing women like Clinton and Keller from curriculums that too often are saturated with one historical perspective does a disservice to all underrepresented groups, and especially to their children.

Sadly, the truth is that many school districts won’t decry the removal of Clinton from the history books. Some will be glad to see her go because they disagree with her politically or just don’t like her. There are a great many men, though, with whom I disagree, say Joseph McCarthy or Robert E. Lee, but they certainly belong in our history books. History is not a popularity contest, no matter what the rubrics say. It’s a record of our past, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As for Keller, there might be a bit of a backlash. Maybe Texas thinks it’s ok to mess with Keller, but they should be careful with Alabama, on and off the football field.

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