Where You Teach Is What You Teach

In light of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” push to make it part of the public school curriculum, despite the extremely dubious proposition that the “primary” purpose of the American revolution was to maintain the institution of slavery, it raises the question of who makes the decision to teach public school children history, and what history they are taught. As Ilya Somin notes, that’s a matter of local concern.

Dana Goldstein of New York Times has an interesting article describing how state governments in both liberal California and conservative Texas work to skew school textbooks in favor of their preferred ideologies. Despite their differences, both seek to indoctrinate students rather than present facts in any sort of evenhanded way.

Despite the “sense” that education should be left to the brain trust of the federal government, it’s very much a matter of what local school boards decide it is, although the content of texts requires a bigger bludgeon and so state education departments get involved to dictate to book publishers what their texts should say.

The textbooks cover the same sweeping story, from the brutality of slavery to the struggle for civil rights. The self-evident truths of the founding documents to the waves of immigration that reshaped the nation.

The books have the same publisher. They credit the same authors. But they are customized for students in different states, and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation’s deepest partisan divides.

Hundreds of differences — some subtle, others extensive — emerged in a New York Times analysis of eight commonly used American history textbooks in California and Texas, two of the nation’s largest markets.

As one might guess, California’s book is a tad more progressive than Texas’.

California’s curriculum materials, by contrast, sometimes read like a brief from a Bernie Sanders rally. “The yawning gap between the haves and have-nots and what is to be done about it is one of the great questions of this time,” says the state’s 2016 social studies framework.

Whether this is a matter of “indoctrination,” with its nefarious mind-control connotations, or a matter of states promoting the view they sincerely believe to be more accurate, is a fair matter for debate. What is clear, however, is that some states are not about to play the “both-sidism” game of competing perspectives, as that could lead to students learning history the state feels is wrong, and that we’ve created a public education system that teaches different “facts” in different places.

In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters….

More than the inability to reach consensus, we’re not talking the same language because students are taught a different set of facts. We enter into “discussions” speaking different languages, relying on different base assumptions and fail to share a common set of foundational facts. If our understanding of the basic facts differs, we’re going to have some serious problems reaching consensus. Yet, this is precisely what states and local school boards are doing.

This state of affairs throws cold water on the popular notion that we can use public education to solve the problem of widespread political ignorance. In principle, we might be able to increase voter knowledge of government and public policy by improving the school curriculum and requiring a high level of knowledge as a prerequisite to graduation. But, in practice, state education officials are usually more interested in inculcating students with their own preferred ideologies than in presenting facts objective or increasing political knowledge across the board.

They especially aren’t interested in combating the partisan and ideological bias that infects many voters’ judgement of political issues, especially in our highly polarized era. To the contrary, they often seek to exacerbate that bias by promoting the agenda of Team Red or Team Blue (depending on who controls the state government in question).

Putting aside the nature of what we’re teaching students in public schools, political ignorance remains something of a constant. People don’t know the three branches of government or the names of their senators, but they know that “unions good.” Education in the hands of Machiavellian manipulators can be used to shape impressionable youth to be their tribes’ useful idiots, even if they’re politically ignorant otherwise. There’s no civics test to exercise the right to vote.

There are alternatives, of course. There is home schooling. There are private, parochial and charter schools. There is the question of school vouchers, which will suck money and, perhaps, the more dedicated students away from public schools, undermining the grand mission of universal public education for all.

Then again, if states are abusing their authority to educate by indoctrinating instead, and notably with huge support and money from teachers’ unions in many instances, is it the parents’ fault that they prefer not to have the state teach their children which side represents good and evil? Then again, someone has to decide what constitutes our history and civics curriculum, regardless of where our children are taught.

11 thoughts on “Where You Teach Is What You Teach

  1. Hunting Guy

    Abraham Lincoln.

    “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

  2. B. McLeod

    Clearly, the schools should be more like the New York Times, and present all sides of every story with objectivity and fairness.

      1. LocoYokel

        Why you gotta hate those hard working people at the Times? They present every side that matters. If you weren’t a Trump-loving white racist cis-hetro male shitlord boomer (did I leave anything out?) you would appreciate all they are trying to do for you.

  3. kemn

    Not sure how home schooling “fixes” the problem of people being taught different “facts”. If anything, it’s more likely to cause even more fragmentation as children learn in even smaller groups from more extremists.

    The majority of people I see doing homeschooling fall on the extreme left & right of the political spectrum…

    1. SHG Post author

      It shifts the “curriculum” from what the state wants the child to learn to what the parent wants the child to learn.

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