Texas has a way of dominating the news just as it dominates a US map. And this time it’s their education system. In late 2020 a state politician called into question some 850 books commonly found in Texas libraries. State Representative Matt Krause, a Republican, emailed a list of 850 books to school superintendents, asking if those books were on their library shelves. He didn’t say why he was asking, but within a week parents were asking school boards about porn on their shelves and accusing teachers of corrupting children.
Krause explained he was targeting books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” His list included books about abortion, sex, gender identity, God, and personal relationships. One wonders if Krause actually read all those books in order to compile his list.
The upheaval about books is just part of the state’s ongoing turmoil about education, abortion, slavery, race, and gender. And not unlike a lot of other states, teachers in the trenches are under fire about what happens in their classes. Should they or should they not be teaching critical race theory? Are their books permitted or banned? What are they allowed to teach about the Civil War or the Trail of Tears?
Texas law only specifies that they “explore” contentious subjects “in a manner free from political bias.” And it notes a teacher must not make students feel “responsibility, blame or guilt” because of their race or sex.
No one will forget when a curriculum official actually suggested teachers should even seek “opposing” perspectives if students read a book on the Holocaust.
Sympathy is surely in order for conscientious teachers who deal with conflicting laws, objectives, curricula, historical facts, parents, the emotional reactions of students, and personal ideas and beliefs.
If only we could agree that facts are facts and indisputable. If only we could agree that time marches on and social mores evolve and change. That what happened in the past happened, whether we approve of it now or not. That ideas from the past may or may not be acceptable by today’s standards, but did exist in their time and place and must be understood in that context.
Interpreting or judging history by today’s standards and morals is “presentism,” and it short circuits critical thinking. Erasing the past, banning its books, destroying its records, ignoring its mistakes, is dangerous. We must study, remember, and learn from the past or, as has been said so often, we are doomed to repeat it.
It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory, they become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going. So a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.