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By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*
History is a collective story. It is selectively written, representing even unintended preferences of its author, and it is selectively understood, transforming as the mind of the reader practices a sort of cognitive dissonance to contextualize it.
Just as there is strength in the phrase “I don’t know,” there is power and truth in the shades of nuance that permeate our history. So, as the Texas Board of Education stains history and economics textbooks with a not-so-innocuous socially conservative framework, I find myself thinking it’s more tied to weakness and fear than any kind of wisdom. Historians are pretty unhappy about it all, but the rest of us should be equally upset. Bryan Monroe expressed concern in the Huffington Post about issues like deleting mentions of slavery in major passages of history books, diminishing Thomas Jefferson for his beliefs about separation of church and state, and lightening the critical load on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist rabble-rousing.
There have been warnings since February of this year, when an article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted the fundamentalist Christian makeup of the Board, some of whom openly acknowledged their desire to reshape the history curriculum to reflect conservative Christian beliefs and values.
Like Monroe, I object to the ‘adjustments’ being made by this conservative majority. Beyond deleting the word “slavery” as if slavery hadn’t happened, the Board has gotten rid of Harriet Tubman, Carrie Chapman Catt, the Seneca Falls Convention and more. Feminists should be enraged. I don’t pretend to think Catt is the best example of a fiery feminist, but she is interesting. In fact, she might have been racist – there is nuance worth noting. Rather than deleting what we don’t like, we might consider giving kids the info and backing off.
Let me explain; after working with babies, teenagers and everyone in between, I am convinced that children have an extraordinary capacity to discern – when properly armed. Unfortunately, that capacity is undermined when the picture they see is incomplete. Our responsibility is not to dictate what our children believe. If we are lucky, they will be smarter than we were. If we are really lucky, they will prove that our own beliefs were not so far off, even though we based them on incomplete knowledge. If, in our ignorance, we limit the young’s opportunity to think for themselves, we distort a powerful developmental process, one based in criticism as a means to ultimate comprehension. Sure, we may be able to steer the future, but is there wisdom in becoming the gatekeepers of knowledge?
This is the folly of the Texas Board of Education. It seems to be a lack of faith in their own canon, that they would teach it without offering alternatives – or a lack of faith in their children to see its apparent luster. Indeed, their choice is to change the story for the lesser. I am not afraid of Phyllis Schlafly. Let our girls know who she was. But present her alongside Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. We cannot force amnesia upon the next generation.
There is so much more to history than what we can include in a grade school text. But we should aim for fairness and comprehensive information. Maybe some children will still turn out to be fundamentalist Christians, white supremacists, or chauvinists, despite access to a tolerant and open worldview. But I believe that with a quality education unfettered by dogma or ideology, more girls would make it all the way through high school and college graduation still knowing that they could be a scientist, mathematician, journalist or President of the United States.
Of course, the idea of equally representing ideologies, perspectives, events and people is an idea that strikes fear into the socially conservative heart. They know their own ideology, in its cynical disregard for diversity of thought, sex, or skin-color, would not remain standing. So I’m calling their bluff. The conservative majority on the Texas Board of Education are a bunch of scaredy-cats!
*Rylee Sommers-Flanagan is a Communications Intern and student at Emory University, where she is pursuing a degree in International Studies.