Social studies textbooks have been under increasing scrutiny this year, as the successor to the science textbook controversy last year. For the first time in 12 years, the State Board of Education will review social studies textbooks, this time under social studies standards put in place in 2010. This time, the critics come from conservative and liberal camps.
In 2011, the conservative think-tank Fordham Institute issued a report that looked at social studies curricula across the country. In Texas, the group found that "Texas combines a rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure with a politicized distortion of history... The leaders of the State Board of Education made no secret of their evangelical Christian-right agenda, promising to inculcate biblical principles, patriotic values and American exceptionalism."
But while state curriculum standards have already been denounced, the Texas Freedom Network released a report on Wednesday that focused on how classroom requirements have affected Texas social studies textbooks. The report analyzed government, U.S. and world history, and religion in world history and geography, pointing to several glaring biases.
Dr. David Brockman, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, points out that the geography and world history textbooks often give preferential treatment to Christianity instead of providing a balanced view of world religions.
"The standards mention Christianity and related terms like the Reformation 14 times, as opposed to nine times for Islam, six for Judaism, and only two for Hinduism," Brockman says. "That isn't a balanced approach to world religions." And that's not counting primal or indigenous religions, which Brockman says are often given scant, if any, discussion in textbooks.
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Dr. Edward Countryman, a history professor at SMU, stays that in attempting to be aligned with state curriculum requirements, state social studies textbooks are desperately unbalanced. "This is not a political issue. It is simply whether the books provide good history that makes the best possible sense of what happened," he says. "My detailed report brings out instance after instance where attempting to conform to the TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] requirements led to errors, misconceptions or worse."
Countryman pointed to anachronisms, including an example in which a world history textbook likened the Spanish conquest of the Inca to contemporary welfare reform. In the same book, a list outlines the effects of revolution in the Americas, pointing out only positive effects of the American Revolution while noting that several Latin American countries maintained the plantation system after their revolutions.
The publishers of Texas textbooks -- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and a sampling of smaller publishing companies -- must work within the curriculum framework given by the State Board of Education. The TFN's report has been sent to these publishers, who may elect to change the problems that have been highlighted, as long as they remain within staterequirements.
"These are just a few instances, drawn from many," says Countryman. "Teaching to the TEKS standards means teaching bad, politically driven history."