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Is Texas Waging War on History?

Christian-nationalist zealots are rewriting US history, airbrushing slavery and enshrining creationism in Texas schools.

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Even by their own admission, the board members were hopelessly unqualified to make judgments about the history. So they appointed a committee of academic “experts” to vet the standards. The committee was a model of “bipartisanship” in the modern era. For their part, the moderates on the board appointed credible historians, professors at Texas universities; one was defended by a moderate Republican board member as “a good Republican … not some kind of crazy liberal.”

The conservatives, on the other hand, appointed Peter Marshall of Peter Marshall Ministries, a group that seeks to “reclaim America for Christ” and is “dedicated to helping to restore America to its Bible-based foundations through preaching, teaching, and writing on America’s Christian heritage and on Christian discipleship and revival.” They also appointed pseudo-historian David Barton, the former vice-chairman of the Texas GOP and founder of the Black Robe Regiment. The latter, sinister-sounding organisation is an association of “concerned patriots” whose goal is to “restore the American Church in her capacity as the Body of Christ, ambassador for Christ, moral teacher of America and the world, and overseer of all principalities and governing officials, as was rightfully established long ago.”

Barton is known for fabricating quotes from America’s founders, or taking them out of context to build his case that America was established as a so-called “Christian nation.” And here’s the gruesome kicker: the Texas board actually ignored advice from its own, balanced committee whenever it contradicted the agenda of the far-right majority.

Sometimes, the most important characters in a story are the ones who don’t show up. In the Texas battle over history, the heroes who went missing were the kind of people and organizations that might have defended the teaching of history in the way that the scientists mobilized to defend the teaching of biology. The scientists are reasonably well-organized. When creationism rears its paleolithic head in state legislatures or on school boards, it faces the opposition of organizations such as the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and others.

Defenders of biological sciences can also fall back on court rulings such as Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District and Edwards v Aguillard, which prohibit teaching of creationism. They also have a wealth of popular treatments of scientific issues to draw upon, such as explanations of evolutionary theory by Richard Dawkins and other scientists.

History, however, is often left to fend for itself.

To be fair, in the Texas proceedings, some historians and activists made valiant attempts to contain the damage. Kathy Miller, spokesperson for the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based research and advocacy group, was allocated several minutes for her impassioned defense of religious and political neutrality in public education. Professor Steven K Green, director of Willamette’s Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy, used his five minutes in front of the board to remind them that “the supreme court has forbidden public schools from ‘seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religious values through curriculum.’” The board majority smiled and looked away.

So, where are history’s defenders?

Part of the problem here has to do with a common fallacy about history. We think of history as a “soft” subject. We know that it always involves some degree of interpretation, that the “narratives” are always “contested”, and that the answers are never so obviously right or wrong as they are in science. We also know that there have been leftwing versions of the history that are just as distorting as the rightwing propaganda served up by McLeroy and friends. But it’s plain wrong to think that we can only throw our hands in the air and conclude that history is whatever anyone chooses to say it is.

 
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