Was Moses a Founding Father?

A broken process at the Texas State Board of Education has allowed right-wing activists to politicize the facts—or fiction—that get taught in history class.

Last Tuesday, the Texas State Board of Education held a public hearing to choose which new social studies textbooks will be recommend to school districts in the state. The board was expected to vote to approve the majority of proposed textbooks and smooth the way for what should have been a final procedural vote on Friday. Instead, complaints by right-wing groups torpedoed the adoption process. The board didn’t approve a single textbook and left the door open to 11th-hour political meddling.

Because the 15-member board voted not to adopt any books, publishers were forced to ignore historical fact and make last minute changes to their books to cater to the conservative activists. When the board voted on Friday, many board members (and the public) couldn’t respond to the final changes made to the textbooks they were approving. They hadn’t even seen them—changes that totaled hundreds of pages.

The problems with this textbook adoption process began in 2010, when the education board passed new history standards that require students to “identify the individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses,” and establish how “biblical law” was a major influence on America’s founding.

Other standards also placed states’ rights and sectionalism ahead of slavery as a cause of the Civil War; claimed that Joseph McCarthy’s blacklists of Americans were justified because communists had infiltrated the government during the Cold War; and in a section on the influence of art, music, and literature on American society, hip hop was removed for being culturally irrelevant and replaced instead with country music. (An aside: Despite disliking hip hop, Board Member Pat Hardy argued that it should be included because, “These people (hip hop artists) are multi-millionaires … There are not enough black people to buy that. There are white people buying this.”)

Even the conservative Fordham Institute called Texas’ standards “a politicized distortion of history.” Distortion or not, textbook publishers must abide by these standards if they want to secure board approval. For example, McGraw-Hill’s U.S. Government textbook says Moses and the Covenant “contributed to our Constitutional structure.”

Beyond crediting Moses with inspiring the American Constitution, some books mislead students about the scientific consensus on climate change, while others undermine the separation of church and state. Pearson’s American Government textbook originally contained two racist cartoons about affirmative action, including a picture of two aliens (ostensibly from outer space) and the caption, “Relax, we’ll be fine—they’ve got affirmative action.” The Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog organization, hired scholars who catalogued all the problems with the different books.

Political meddling by the Board of Education doesn’t just affect Texas.  Because Texas buys nearly 50 million textbooks each year, it has a huge impact on the textbook market at large. School districts all around the country, including some in Louisiana, buy books that were written to meet Texas’ standards, flaws included.  Former board Chairman Don McLeroy, who was instrumental in passing many of these standards, once said, “Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.” McLeroy hadn’t seen the current textbooks, but after reading an article in Politico about their references to the “Christian heritage,” he said he was “thrilled” because that was the goal of his standards.

In September, the Board held its first meeting to allow the public to comment on the content of the proposed textbooks. (I’ve testified at multiple hearings in opposition to these textbooks on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Houston Chapter.) Public criticism of the books mounted, including from more than 100,000 people who signed petitions calling for climate science denial to be removed from the textbooks.  Southern Methodist University history professor Kathleen Wellman testified that these books would cause students to believe “that Moses was the first American.”

Still, despite the testimony in opposition to the historically inaccurate material, the September hearing showed why the content in history textbooks shouldn’t decided by public comment. Amy Jo Baker, a retired history teacher, argued that the textbooks were “leftist” because they used Before Common Era (BCE) rather than BC, calling it “linguistic fascism.” Baker said historians use BCE because they refuse to “recognize the significant role of Christianity in development of the world.” Another speaker, John Noble, accused the books, and the U.S. government, of indoctrinating students with Sharia Law and Marxist principles. Noble said, “I don't think that Islam needs to be the spokesman for the textbooks. America was founded on Judeo-Christian heritage, not Islam.”

Board members supported these testifiers, repeatedly saying they hoped the publishers addressed their complaints, and also inserted their own politics into the debate.  Board member Pat Hardy called it a “matter of opinion” that people might find the affirmative action cartoon offensive. Board Members David Bradley and Ken Mercer denied that the Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, and offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove the stipulation exists.

This entire process is about politics, not history. Since the September hearing, publishers, activists, and board members have negotiated the textbooks’ content. Climate change denial was removed, but Moses was kept in. Hillary Clinton was taken out, while George Bush was given a gentler biography.  The affirmative action cartoons were cut, too.

Changes to textbooks, valid or not, shouldn’t be made in the 11th-hour by an elected political body whose members lack experience in the subject. Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network said, “The fundamental problem is that partisan politicians are making decisions that should be made by scholars.”  Last week’s hearings continued to show how politics have corrupted our textbooks, as right-wing activists and board members aired more complaints.

Board member Hardy objected to not teaching climate denial, arguing, “This global climate thing ... I don't see why if you present it, you don't present both sides.” A testifier complained that the science section of the website for the publisher Cengage had videos of dust mite reproduction and “horseshoe crab orgies.” Board Member Bahorich asked the publisher to “block” these videos, and it remains to be seen whether the company will follow suit. Jonathan Kaplan, a University of Texas professor, testified that “it is a gross exaggeration to view the Bible as the source of the American ideal of legal equality,” but Hardy disagreed. She insisted, “Mosaic law influenced English Common Law, English Common Law influenced American law.” (Mosaic law includes prohibitions on things like consuming grape skins and was intended for a theocracy with a monarch, none of which is part of our system of government.)

Roy White, chairman of the right-wing group Truth in Texas Textbooks, was allowed over an hour of testimony while most academics were limited to two minutes. White objected to a textbook passage that said, “Muslims spread their religion by conquest, through trade, and through missionary work,”demanding that it be rewritten to says Muslims would “attack or kill” anyone who wasn’t Muslim. He described the Crusades as a justified reaction to 400 years of Islamic oppression. White’s group submitted over 1,500 similar complaints that the textbook publishers now are being asked to answer.

Challenges to content in our history textbooks should be made by actual historians, not random members of the public. The board had an opportunity to ask historians to audit the books through citizen review panels; these panels were meant to check for errors in the books. But instead of historians, board members appointed people like a retired car salesman who was running for political office. The Texas Freedom Network reported that out of over 100 reviewers, only three were actual historians.

And Texas isn’t the only state with this type of adoption process. About 20 states adopt textbooks in ways that allow the government to dictate their content.  That means Texas might no longer be the only state where kids learn that Moses was the first American.