September 25, 2014

A Long Standing Tradition: We're seeing historical revision and dominion theology at its finest




My eleventh grade year, I had one of the best teachers I have ever had. I won't name her, because I don't want to associate her here without her permission, but her class was one of the best I've ever sat through--the type of class that I looked forward to day in and day out. I truly credit that class with preparing me for college, because the vast majority of my high school classes did not (through no fault of the teachers, I should add).

That class was Advanced Placement United States History, and I aced the AP test at the end of the year.

I still remember the thrill of digging through documents and creating the best essays to argue my points. It was a challenge, and I reveled in it.

The class didn't soften the blows. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly in our nation's past, and how it impacted the present and perhaps the future. My father was in Iraq at the time, and it made talking about policy decisions in the Middle East, and our history there, difficult--but so worthwhile.

One thing it never did? Make me hate my country.

No, I desperately love my nation. But I have a realistic view of it.

We are not perfect. We are flawed. I learned that through studying history.

I learned it, and I committed myself to making my nation a better place. I don't know what could be more patriotic than that, honestly.

Unfortunately, there is a rising trend in our nation that strongly disagrees with me.


Things have been heating up around the nation, but recently boiled over in Colorado:

The school board proposal that triggered the walkouts in Jefferson County calls for instructional materials that present positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" and don't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law." 
The proposal from Julie Williams, part of the board's conservative majority, has not been voted on and was put on hold last week. She didn't return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment Tuesday, but previously told Chalkbeat Colorado, a school news website, that she recognizes there are negative events that are part of U.S. history that need to be taught. 
"There are things we may not be proud of as Americans," she said. "But we shouldn't be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place."

Censoring history classes to teach about patriotism and American values? I almost can't with the situational irony.

 Unfortunately, Colorado isn't the only state experiencing this trend. We can also look to our always faithful Texas to see the overall trend that's been developing:

The latest “experts don’t know as much as me” nonsense has emerged in one of the worst places possible: high school textbooks. Over the past few months, a new set of books has emerged from the nation’s publishers, the first since the State Board of Education in Texas, driven by political conservatives and Christian evangelicals, adopted standards in 2010 for what should be included in them. And the decisions by Texans don’t just inflict this foolishness on Texas kids; because the state is such a huge purchaser of school textbooks, publishers often opt to print whatever the Lone Star State wants for students all over the country. 
Now the books based on those standards are out, and, unsurprisingly, history and knowledge have been tossed aside in favor of politics, propaganda and faith. The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a group organized to strengthen public schools and counter the influence of the Christian right in education, asked experts—people with doctorates who teach these topics at university levels—to review the textbooks, and their opinions were scathing.

What's wrong with the textbooks? The Newsweek piece explains:

Did you know Moses played a role in the writing of the U.S. Constitution? I didn’t. Apparently neither did the Founding Fathers, since he’s not mentioned in the Federalist Papers or any other relevant document. But students reading Perfection Learning’s new textbook on American history will think Moses was right up there with John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu in influencing Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their brethren. What role did Moses supposedly play? The textbook claims he contributed the concept that “a nation needs a written code of behavior.” Forget the biblical ignorance shown in suggesting Moses provided the code for a “nation” rather than for the Jewish people, who had no nation (failing to reach the Promised Land was kind of key to the Book of Deuteronomy). Forget the legal ignorance in suggesting the Constitution had anything to do with a “code of behavior” rather than establishing democratic government and the rights guaranteed to citizens. Forget the historical ignorance in suggesting that the first laws came from Moses when the sixth Amorite king of Babylon established one of the first written set of laws, known as Hammurabi's Code, hundreds of years earlier. 
Saying Moses played a role in the writing of the Constitution because he showed the benefits of having rules is about on par with saying that the caveman who invented the wheel helped design the first automobile. This claptrap was nothing more than a vehicle to sneak religious training into history classes. 
That’s why the book says the following, grammatical errors and all: “During their years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai, Moses handed down God’s Ten Commandments to the Hebrews. These commandments now form the bedrock on which the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian codes of behavior are based. The full account of Moses’ life can be found in the Bible’s book of Exodus.” Yes, a history book is teaching as fact that God wrote the Ten Commandments and gave them to Moses—something that some religious academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of the Bible believe is not a true story. This is not history. It is not even biblical scholarship. It is puerile, gee-whiz religiosity propounded by biblical illiterates to indoctrinate young people while undermining any chance they have of learning how to think like historians.

Those of you who are familiar with the conservative fundamentalist Christian push in our nation may well recognize the dominionism. For those of you not familiar with dominionism, I pulled this definition from Wikipedia:

Dominion Theology or Dominionism is the idea that Christians should work toward either a nation governed by Christians or one governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law. At least under this name, it exists primarily among Protestants in the United States. It is a form of theocracy and is related to theonomy, though it does not necessarily advocate Mosaic law as the basis of government. Prominent adherents of Dominion Theology are otherwise theologically diverse, including the Calvinist Christian Reconstructionism and the charismatic/Pentecostal Kingdom Now theology and New Apostolic Reformation. 

Dominion theology is a major push within those groups, and it's one that is heavily taught in conservative Christian curriculums like A-Beka...which is where I first encountered it.

Dominion theology makes a mockery of the First Amendment, in my opinion. It's the idea, in fact expressed by some key conservative Christian figures, that the First Amendment only applies to Christians.

What more do these books say?

The reviews of textbooks conducted by historians for the Texas Freedom Network point up far more than just a few historically absurd and biblically obtuse assertions about Moses. A McGraw-Hill textbook called United States Government regurgitates the right-wing Christian talking point that the Constitution does not include the words “separation between church and state” while ignoring the extensive support for this concept by both Madison and Jefferson, and the rulings of the Supreme Court that all make it clear that such a separation is indeed encompassed by the First Amendment. 
Some of the books mislead through de-emphasizing what matters. No one, I hope, would argue that rulings by a lower state court were of greater historical significance than ones on the same issue by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, students who read the textbook Basic Principles of American Government, published by Perfection Learning, might not know that. In a discussion of—surprise, surprise—the key Supreme Court case on the unconstitutionality of enforced school prayer, the book downplays what the Texas education board doesn’t want to hear. For four paragraphs, the book analyzes the case, Engel v. Vitale, by presenting the arguments from lower state court rulings that supported school prayer. As for the Supreme Court decision, the one that actually had an impact on American history, the one that declared it unconstitutional? One paragraph, with virtually no discussion of the logic behind it. 
The tomfoolery is boundless. The growth of all international terrorism is caused by Islamic fundamentalism. Islam contributed little to ancient knowledge. Muslims spread their faith through violent conquest, but Christians did not engage in violent conquest. Hindus are strict vegetarians. The government’s role in the economy should be restricted solely to protecting the free market. Americans are taxed so much that it’s reasonable to joke that the government takes all of their money. Some segregated schools were pretty equal for black and white children. And space aliens would love to come to America because then they could take advantage of affirmative action.

It was only in reading Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht that I realized the important role that the ancient Islamic world played in protecting Western classical knowledge from destruction by...you guessed it...ancient Christians. This role was absolutely vital to continuing our knowledge, and the caliphates provided sanctuary for persecuted scholars, as well as contributing vast amounts of knowledge from their own scholars. To suggest otherwise is insane.

But I digress.

Newsweek also sheds some light on the Jefferson County, Colorado case mentioned above:

The board member leading the charge is Julie Williams, a graduate of Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado, who works as the manager of a dental office. “We shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place,’’ Williams said in an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “When [the course questions] our American values and leaves out so many of our Founding Fathers, that’s concerning to me.” 
Nothing against dental office managers: This is a fine career that I probably couldn’t do well. And nothing against community colleges, which have helped untold millions of Americans gain an affordable and practical education. But I doubt Williams believes it would be fine for a Richard Hofstadter, a David McCullough or some other renowned historian to show up at her office and start drilling teeth. Yet she and her unqualified allies have no qualms about sitting in judgment on whether professional historians know what they are talking about.

Is this without hope entirely? Not at all. Newsweek gives us a glimmer of hope here:

This is not a conservative versus liberal issue. In 2011, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an ideologically conservative think tank that focuses on education, decried the Texas standards on American history as a “politicized distortion” with “misrepresentations at every turn.” 

It's nice to see that we can all unite behind the idea that this is heinous fuckery most foul, folks. Let's reach across that aisle, grab these textbooks, and knock some sense into these politicians. Can we do that?

The Huffington Post also points out a beautiful response by Jefferson County students and staff:

Hundreds of students walked out of classrooms around suburban Denver on Tuesday in protest over a conservative-led school board proposal to focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority, in a show of civil disobedience that the new standards would aim to downplay. 
The youth protest involving six high schools in the state's second-largest school district follows a sick-out from teachers that shut down two high schools in the politically and economically diverse area that has become a key political battleground. 
Student participants said their demonstration was organized by word of mouth and social media. Many waved American flags and carried signs, including messages that read "There is nothing more patriotic than protest." 

Nothing more patriotic, indeed.

Our history doesn't need to be sanitized, and for flying spaghetti monster's sake, our children don't need to be protected from it. Information is power. Knowledge is power. And it's far past time to start trusting our students with that power.

It's by knowing where we came from, and the mistakes and triumphs along the way, that we are able to envision--and build--a better future.

We have to fight this spread of misinformation. What begins as a few schools, in parts of the country that seem far away for some of us, can spread quickly, and by the time we find ourselves caught up in it, the damage may already be done.

We owe to our students. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our nation.

Do better.

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