Texas State Board of Education Tries to Dilute History of Women, Minorities


John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, culture, and election issues. He holds an MA in American history from the University of Texas at Austin.

The last days of February mark the end of Black History Month, and in March the nation will reflect on the accomplishments of women during Women's History Month.  Americans as a whole are encouraged to participate in readings and other forms of commemoration. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of this national recognition, the dominant faction on the Texas State Board of Education is working to make these groups "redundant" in the state's curriculum.

The group is led by former board chair Don McLeroy, a Republican from Bryan.  Until last year this stocky, outspoken dentist was board chairman, but the Legislature did not confirm him for another term in that role because some prominent Texans had begun to see the commercial disadvantages of having a state education chair who believed that human beings and dinosaurs were contemporaries on earth.   He still leads the dominant social conservative faction, and during board debates in mid-January he offered a series of amendments that incensed other members of the board.  

The board's actions have national implications.  The state of Texas purchases millions of textbooks annually, and national publishers will have to incorporate the curriculum changes that the state board approves.  The state board's final decisions on the curriculum in March will be in effect for the next decade.

High school students are supposed to learn how the cultural contributions of "…people from various racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups shape American culture."  At the January meeting, McLeroy proposed this dramatic change:  the deletion of "from various racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups" from the section.  When he was asked to explain his motion, his reply was that the phrase was "redundant" because the excluded groups are "people."

Mavis Knight, an African American Democrat from Dallas, had managed to contain herself during previous McLeroy amendments.  But no longer.  "It's not redundant for me!" she said.  "To me, you're sanitizing the difficulties that these groups who are 'people' had to overcome in order to make a contribution to society.  So we talk about rewriting history—this board is rewriting history as far as I'm concerned…because you want to sanitize anything that may reflect negatively on our country, and there are things that were done in this country that were negative."

Richard Allen, an African American from the Houston area, is vice-chair of the board.  He asked if the supporters of the amendment were "really saying that there's always been one group striving for the same thing all the time, where there's no opposition?  I think [the amendment] takes the stance that there's no opposition…that everything has always moved in harmony, and that all people move for the same thing."  A somewhat shy man who is always polite, he calmly asked supporters to clarify their meaning.

Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican member from the Houston suburb of Richmond, is leaving the board after a series of controversial statements.  One example came during the presidential election:  "'Shared sacrifice and social responsibility' smack of Marxist Communism and redistribution of wealth."  She has also called public schools "a subtly deceptive tool of perversion."

She responded to Allen:  "[McLeroy's amendment] doesn't in any way prohibit you addressing those within those subclasses," she said, unaware or unconcerned about using "subclasses" to describe women and minorities.  "It simply opens the door" to talk about any people whatsoever.

It was left for Barbara Cargill, a member of the social conservative bloc from the Woodlands, another Houston suburb, to express the views of that faction most succinctly.  In a crisp tone, she said, "One of our goals is to emphasize the unity that all Americans have achieved as a result of the melting pot effect, so bringing attention to group distinctions is not necessary."

In the brief time before Mavis Knight could reply, one board member let out a stage whisper that was audible on the sound system:  "Geez, she's struck a nerve."

Knight said "I need a moment," and then, continuing, "I have great respect for our teachers…but…you have teachers who would not take the time to break out 'people' in terms of the gender, the ethnic, the racial barriers people have overcome as we have strived to become a unified America.  We are painting this false picture of America.  We are not unified, even now.  We're struggling to be, but you would have us think that we're in some kind of utopia that does not exist, and so until we mature more, we're going to look at where we have been and what obstacles we have overcome so that we won't continue to repeat some of the bad habits that we had in the past.  So it's necessary even at this point in time to talk about the struggles -- and the continuing struggles -- to be one."

She went on, "The society deliberately wrote laws to keep [minorities] from achieving…so don't tell me…!"  And then she broke off.  "I'm going to stop," she told the chair, Cynthia Lowe.  "I'm getting out of control.  I'm sorry."

Bob Craig, a moderate Republican from Lubbock, is probably the most objective member of the board, always measuring his words and choosing his arguments well, and often trying to find some consensus.  "I don't see why we should be concerned or afraid to allow the contributions of people from various racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups," he said.  I think that is important.  It is our history."

On this, his fourth attempt to delete women and minorities from the curriculum, McLeroy failed, but he has promised an in-depth review of other major sections of the curriculum that address civil rights issues when the board reconvenes in March.

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John Willingham - 3/6/2010


Tim Matthewson - 3/6/2010

That's what a recent graduate from UVA told me when I mentioned that Kansas had recently voted to implement Creationism in the public schools of the state. That is the state could get along without evolution and Darwin. Such reactionary politics seems just a way of giving the finger to the urban elites who presume to tell local school boards what to teach. Mind your own damn business; we will be happy to go to hell in our own way!

Corey Mondello - 3/4/2010

Christian Extremist will destroy America!

John Willingham - 3/2/2010

Although the amendment discussed in the article failed, the board did pass an almost identical amendment that deleted the specific study of the political and economic contributions of women and minorities. They also passed another amendment that reduced the emphasis of women and minorities in a section on the Home Front in WWII.

Howard Beeth - 3/2/2010

The attitude, words, and arguments of those who would whitewash history are themselves testimony against doing so.

John Willingham - 3/1/2010

Thank you, John. The board is meeting again on March 8, and they will make final their social studies curriculum then.

John Testa - 2/28/2010

Another great article, John. It is a shame more historians are not speaking out. Keep fighting this good fight.