The teaching of Evolution has always been the source of contention for school boards; but now, the Texas Board of Education is making American History the next battle ground in the culture wars. The Texas school board have brought in six outside reviewers to make recommendations on changing the social studies curriculum. Some on the board have bought into the mythology that America was founded as a Christian Nation, so two of their outside reviewers are Peter Marshall and David Barton. Marshall and Barton are not historians; they are Christian activists who feel called to "reclaim America’s Christian heritage." All the other reviewers, including the three appointed by the more moderate and liberal board members, are credentialed historians.
Marshall and Barton are advocates of a revisionist history of America, stating that the aim of the founding fathers was to have a Christian nation. This revisionism severely harms the good arguments that should be made (on solid historical grounds) that much of the nation’s ethos at its founding was influenced by a Christian worldview. For instance, there is ample evidence to suggest that the reason we have a separation of powers in American government comes from a biblical understanding of humanity’s fall and sinfulness, so the Constitution set up the system of checks and balances. This information should not be kept from students being taught in secular schools simply because it mentions religion. That is revisionist history, and does more harm than good.
However, Marshall and Barton continually overplay their hand, making bold and unsubstantiated claims about the history of the nation in terms of Christianity. Mark Noll, evangelicalism’s most respected historian, has lambasted Peter Marshall’s books – pointing out how Marshall actually gets history wrong because he so wants to believe what he wants to believe. (A must read book on this subject is The Search for Christian America, by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden).
The current arguments in the Texas Board of Education revolve around who should be included in the history curriculum and who should be excluded. Peter Marshall and David Barton have suggested to the Texas Board that certain people should be excluded from the history curriculum: They want Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education and later became the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, to be excluded from First Grade curriculum. They want Anne Hutchinson, who was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for teaching religious views at odds with the officially sanctioned faith, excluded from Fifth Grade curriculum. They want César Chávez, who (because of his Catholic sense of justice) led a strike and boycott to improve working conditions for immigrant farm workers, excluded as an example of citizenship for fifth-graders. "He's hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation," Marshall wrote.
John Fea, Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College, has written an excellent opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle this week ("Don't taint teaching of history in Texas"). John and I were dorm mates back in seminary.
In it, John says that the bigger issue at stake in this matter is the purpose of history curriculum in our students’ development.
“The study of history develops civic awareness and provides us with heroes from the past that we can look up to. This is the kind of history that Barton and Marshall want to promote. This kind of search for a useful past makes sense. Our natural inclination is to find something familiar in history — something that affirms our own convictions in the present.
Historians know, however, that not all of the past is familiar or useful. Not all of the past serves our present-day agendas.
Yet we must study it.
Students do not have to see themselves in the past in order to learn from it. The study of history can develop character, the kind of moral and intellectual development that happens when they encounter historical actors who are strange to them.
Real education takes place when students learn to respect the ideas of people with whom they (or their parents) might differ. Historical thinking forces them to lay aside their own biases and enter into the mind of a person from the past who may have views that do not conform to their own.
Such an engagement with the past lends itself to the cultivation of certain virtues — empathy, prudence, hospitality, self-denial — that might just make our students better people. This is the real value of the study of history in schools.”