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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Texas, Truth, and Teaching

This week the Texas State Board of Education voted to require schools to teach "a version of American history that emphasizes the roles of capitalist enterprise, the military, Christianity, and modern Republican political figures" (in the words of the New York Times). Critics immediately decried those priorities, arguing that other aspects of our past were more important for children to learn about.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin once made a similar attempt to control local school curriculums. In 1923, a bill introduced by state senator John Cashman would have prohibited schoolbooks that contained uncomplimentary references to the nation's founding fathers.

"I pity and have grave fears for a nation that is taught to laugh at its forefathers," Cashman explained, as he critiqued then-current texts. In a speech lasting two hours, he claimed that, "The minds of our schoolchildren are being poisoned by the sort of lies that these books are teaching." As examples of the poisonous ideas, he offered these quotes from American history texts: "The English colonial system was not tyrannical" and "The War of 1812 was a mistake."

Cashman's bill would have censored any schoolbook that "falsifies the facts concerning the War for Independence, or the War of 1812, or defames our nation's founders, or misrepresents the ideals and cause for which they struggled." After brief hearings, cooler heads prevailed and the bill died a quiet death.

That was not the case this week in in the Lone Star state. And because Texas districts comprise such a large market share of textbooks, publishers often sell the same text to districts all across the nation. This means that the priorities of the Texas Board of Education may be taught in classrooms from Miami to Superior.

We prefer to share a broad range of evidence about the past and encourage students to make up their own minds about it. This is the approach we take with online collections such as American Journeys and Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Was Columbus a hero or a villain? Did the fur trade improve American Indians' lives or ruin them? We hope Wisconsin students will examine historical accounts in their classrooms, weigh the evidence, decide for themselves, and argue for their interpretations.

We publish manuals such as Thinking Like a Historian and History & Critical Thinking to help teachers facilitate this process.

Americans will always disagree about which truths are most important for their children to learn in school. But if teachers help kids learn to think critically, they will grow into good citizens and we will all benefit.

:: Posted in on May 26, 2010

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