Texas and the First Amendment

Zombie has completed his analysis of the education wars, and has done a fair-minded job in describing the situation in Texas.

Unlike Thomas Frank, I get it. I understand that American patriotism, far from being nothing more than the reactionary buzzword of small-minded bigots (as leftists believe), is based on a deep awareness that the United States of America is the first (and to date only) nation based on an idea, rather than on geography or ethnicity. And not just any idea, but the highest ideals which the human mind can formulate: freedom, responsibility, self-reliance, equality of opportunity, individualism. And that to be patriotic in America is a shorthand way to declare one’s allegiance to these philosophical ideals….

The revelation: Texas is not trying to push conservatism — it’s trying to preserve patriotism. (And by “preserve patriotism” I mean steadfastly uphold the principles upon which America rests.) Texas’ educational attitude only appears as “conservatism” to analysts because patriotism has been abandoned by the left in favor of internationalism, so conservatives are the only ones willing to stand up for patriotism anymore.

That’s exactly right. The Texas State Board of Education has sought to improve the precision of educational standards in Texas while restoring some ideological balance. Speaking of the United States as  constitutional republic rather than as a democracy isn’t an attempt to score cheap points by including the name of one party rather than the other; it’s an improvement, a specification of the kind of democracy we are. Insisting that students study the ideas of the Founding Fathers is nothing more than insisting that students understand what the United States is.

I don’t want to be ungracious, but Zombie’s criticism of the Texas Board come down to a few points, and on those, it seems to me, he gets things wrong. He quotes the Texas Freedom Network and endorses their complaint:

“Religious conservatives on the board killed a proposed standard that would have required high school government students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” That means the board rejected teaching students about the most fundamental constitutional protection for religious freedom in America.” (3/11/10)

…The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on this issue several times in its history, but most of the landmark decisions tended to side with the secularist position that the First Amendment was more than about preventing a national church, but was generally about government not favoring or abetting religion in any way.

So it seems to me that the critics have a valid point here: The TSBE was promulgating as fact its wishful-thinking interpretation of the First Amendment, rather than the Supreme Court’s more “official” interpretation. Which, to me, is not kosher.

But wait. The standards already required students to study the First Amendment. A left-wing member of the Board proposed an addition that inserted a specific interpretation of the Amendment. The majority voted it down. They didn’t insert their own favored interpretation; they just required study of the First Amendment. (The Board’s discussion, incidentally, included a rather sophisticated exchange on these landmark cases; the conservative members of the Board are not yahoos, but highly intelligent, well-informed people.) Now, perhaps that might be judged wrong, if the addition quoted above is plainly correct. But, pace Zombie, it strikes me as highly contentious. Note that the Mavis Knight summary says nothing about the free exercise of religion. Nor does it say that the government may not favor religion (Zombie’s preferred interpretation); it says that the government may not prefer or disfavor one religion over others. Finally, court decisions have allowed the government to disfavor certain religions—those involving the use of peyote, for example, or snake-handling, or human or animal sacrifice. So, there were good reasons for Board members to oppose that addition.

Zombie then complains about the deletion of Thomas Jefferson from a list of political philosophers in the World History course, a list that includes Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. As I’ve already said, Jefferson’s name was restored, and the deletion seems reasonable on the merits, since Jefferson was not a major political philosopher. Moreover, striking his name from this list would be an odd way to “punish” him for writing a letter mentioning the separation of church and state, since that issue has little to do with the standard in question or the World History course in general.

Finally, Zombie complains that the Board deleted ‘including propaganda’ from the standard requiring students to study the reasons for U.S. entry into World War I. But note that the standards still require students to study the reasons; the standards no longer single out one of those reasons for special mention, leaving it up to instructors and students to determine the relative importance of factors leading to American involvement. That seems reasonable to me, particularly since the major propaganda efforts of the Wilson administration began after our entry into the war.

I don’t mean to quibble. The rest of Zombie’s article is an outstanding overview of other complaints raised by leftists that don’t hold water. And he points out something observers need to keep in mind: current textbooks and teaching standards are tilted so far to the left that the Board could hardly tilt the balance to the right even if it wanted to. The most it can do is move things back slightly in the direction of an even-handed treatment of history.

2 thoughts on “Texas and the First Amendment

  1. I wonder whether you have had the opportunity to read John Taylor Gato: http://johntaylorgatto.com/
    He has some very interesting things to say about public education in generaL
    He was the New York state “Teacher of the Year” recipient the year he resigned from his job as a teacher in New York city.

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