The American Historian

It's Hard to Protect the Gods of the State

Jon Bulter

An Oklahoma legislator writes a U.S. history curriculum. State boards pour through elementary and secondary history textbooks. A former state governor, now a university president, e-mails state education officials, hoping that the textbooks of “a terrible anti-American academic [who] has finally passed away” are “not in use anywhere” in the state.

The national committee of one of the nation’s two major political parties criticizes the “radically revisionist view of American history” in the new Advanced Placement history examination. Some state legislatures threaten to withdraw funding for Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. Can American history survive so much public and political attention, so much love?

We’re not alone, if that makes historians feel better. Parents have long protested novels, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Activists demand that “creationist” theory receive equal attention with evolutionary theory, if evolutionary theory is taught at all. Textbook accounts of the Crusades and historical and contemporary Islam are scrutinized line by line, adjective by adjective. The term “capitalism” is replaced by the phrase “free enterprise system,” and for clear reasons. “Let’s face it,” a Texas Board of Education member recently observed, “capitalism does have a negative connotation. You know, ‘capitalist pig!’”

These dialogues are hardly new. Disputes about the proper patriotism of historians and their texts have been with us for centuries. Literature has raised hackles and offended the public since writing began. Reputable historians still argue about evil and triumph in the Protestant Reformation. Teachers everywhere—in elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and those who teach through exhibitions, national parks, and museums—have forever been suspect, most famously in Athens, where authorities charged Socrates with corrupting youth and not believing in the “Gods of the State,” as Plato wrote.

Yet the “Gods of the State” are harder to protect than punchy attacks on heresy suggest. Proceedings of the Texas State Board of Education illustrate the pitfalls. Its November 2014 meetings produced as much chaos as vitriol. An organization called Truth in Texas Textbooks brought 1,500 objections. The Texas Eagle Forum demanded that textbooks “describe the ‘forced wealth distribution’ imposed by the United Nations” in its “propaganda about climate change.” Liberals charged that some textbooks “overstate the influence of religion on early American democracy.” The result was paralysis, and the Board failed to approve any textbooks on its first try.

Two days later the Board approved eighty-nine textbooks and digital materials, but only after one major publisher withdrew and others made several thousand last-minute wording changes. Activists on both sides worried that neither the Board nor the public had actually read many submissions. After the books finally were approved, the Board’s vice president simply sighed, saying the books “are not perfect, they never will be.”

The Board’s meetings four years earlier in March 2010 to approve a Texas social studies curriculum hadn’t gone much better. Three full days of meetings produced one hundred amendments to the 120-page curriculum proposal. One Board member rejected “the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state.” In naming figures that inspired late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century revolutions, the Board replaced Thomas Jefferson with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone, and it refused to name additional Latinos important in Texas state history. A “balanced” curriculum passed on a divided vote.

The resulting social studies and history curriculum, however, updated for 2011, reveals an almost ironic result: many changes are merely pasted into a remarkably standard curriculum, and some may not quite work as intended. The curriculum added Moses to Blackstone, Locke, and Montesquieu as figures who “informed the American founding documents.” But the large sections on the American Revolution would be familiar to most teachers and historians of America’s past. The more mellifluous label, “free enterprise system,” can be used interchangeably with “capitalism,” but students also will study “the impact of the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions and globalization on humanity” without hints offered about their substance.

Some requirements might become too clever by half. Presumably to illustrate the fallacy of Jefferson’s argument about “separation of church and state,” students are asked to compare Jefferson’s phrase with the actual words of the First Amendment. But an observant student might note how its opening clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” advances a far broader principle than merely separating church from state.

The immediate fate of a February 2015 Oklahoma bill to end Advanced Placement funding for public schools offers hope that shallow, “pro-American” history courses will not always win immediate public support. The bill proposed replacing current AP history courses with a more “positive” homegrown curriculum emphasizing patriotism and “American exceptionalism,” among other themes. Large numbers of Oklahoma parents, teachers, and students defended the AP program, and a student protest petition gathered over thirty thousand signatures. The bill’s author withdrew it, claiming it was “poorly worded” and had not been intended “to hurt AP.” For the moment, the issue seems dead.

We should not be sanguine about only partial defeats and a few momentary victories to write and teach a serious and substantial American history. Efforts to offer public school students American history courses that are more worshipful and less critical of America’s past have long been with us and likely always will be.

But appreciation for serious engagement with a complicated American past, warts and all, runs deep. American history teachers, researchers, and authors might take heart in the 2014 Colorado protests against a proposed history curriculum to “promote citizenship, patriotism, [and the] essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” Students walked out, and, with many parents, protested by carrying signs reading “TEACH US THE TRUTH” and wearing t-shirts proclaiming “SAVE AMERICAN HISTORY.” The proposal had been scrapped by February 2015.

These students, parents, and teachers offer hope for an American history honest to itself, not the Gods of the State, and to our future as a historically literate, thoughtful people.

JON BUTLER is president of the OAH and Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American studies, history, and religious studies at Yale University. He is the author of several books, including The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (1983), Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990), and Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (2000). He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.