The Austin Chronicle

Social Studies 'Experts' Don't Know Much About History

By Lee Nichols, July 24, 2009, News

When it comes to historical figures worthy of study by Texas' schoolchildren, Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall can go to the back of the bus. Sorry, but the good seats are reserved for Jesus and patriots. At least, that appears to be the view of some "experts" appointed by the State Board of Education to review K-12 social studies curriculum standards for possible revisions.

Current language in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requires that teachers "[i]dentify significant individuals such as Cesar Chavez and Benjamin Franklin who modeled active participation in the democratic process." Despite the "such as" language clearly making those figures mere recommendations, not requirements, that was just too much for two of the panelists, Christian crusader David Barton and Massachusetts minister Peter Marshall (no relation to Thur­good, we presume). In their separate (but remarkably similar) reviews of the TEKS, both blast Chavez, the late civil rights and labor activist, and – along with American University professor Daniel Dreisbach – spend an astonishing number of pages arguing that more time must be devoted to studying the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers. "To have Cesar Chavez listed next to Ben Franklin is ludicrous," Marshall wrote. "Chavez is hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation."

Barton, founder of Texas-based Wall­Build­ers – "an organization dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built" – was more explicit: Chavez's "open affiliation with [community organizer] Saul Alinsky's movements certainly makes dubious that he is praiseworthy to be heralded to students as someone 'who modeled active participation in the democratic process,'" he wrote.

In another section on history studies, Peter Marshall downplays Thurgood Marshall as not being a "strong enough [example] in light of the multiplicity of persons who have impacted American history."

Um ... this would be the same Thurgood Marshall who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court, desegregating America's schools and forever changing our nation's racial landscape, and who eventually became that court's first African-American justice.

Critics of the SBOE, such as the Texas Freedom Network, immediately pounced on the comments. "That might come as a surprise to the parents of children attending the (at least) 44 schools across this country named after Chavez (including eight schools in Texas)," the group said on its TFN Insider blog. "Or to people in communities who have named numerous parks, libraries, major thoroughfares and other places after Chavez, who died in 1993." Austin renamed First Street after Chavez that year.

"This has all been grossly misconstrued," replied Peter Marshall in an interview with the Chronicle. "My point ... is simply one of comparison. ... If you're trying to adduce examples for these guidelines of famous Ameri­cans that ought to be included in the teaching of American history, to pair those two men is silly. Chavez doesn't begin to compare in terms of his impact on American history with Ben Franklin." But he made it clear that his objections are also political. "My own personal guess is that the reason he was included in that is that it reflects the leftist bias of the people who wrote the guidelines last time. I don't know; I don't know who wrote them. But I'm suspicious of that. ... In comparison with [other figures], Chavez doesn't warrant much attention. ... He's just not real high on my list."

Elaborating on the Alinsky connection, Marshall said, "Understand, I haven't done a lot of research into this whole thing, because it's just not something that's come up on my screen. Alinsky was a far-left radical labor organizer – had a whole lot of influence on Hillary Clinton, I might add. He's somebody that there's a connection to Obama. Obama studied this guy, was basically mentored by him in a lot of respects."

As for Justice Thurgood Marshall: "A lot of the people [the guideline examples] pick, you looked at this and you thought, 'Why did they throw that person up as opposed to somebody who'd be much more obvious a pick, such as Washington or Madison or Franklin or ... Andrew Jackson?'

"My objection here is simply: Let's make sure we cover the people that really have to be covered. If you got time left over to talk about these guys, fine. But again, sure, he was involved in a terribly important Supreme Court case, but from that point of view, there are dozens and dozens of justices that have been involved in important Supreme Court cases. That fact alone doesn't cause him to be stuck in the first rank."

"As with the science 'expert' panel, it appears that the social studies panel will be evenly split between mainstream academics and ideologues aligned with the creationist faction," complained TFN last month when Peter Marshall and the other panel members were announced. (The brunt of the science debate featured arguments of creationism vs. evolution.) Saying that Barton and Mar­shall lack academic credentials, TFN wrote, "In truth, their 'expertise' is in promoting political agendas, not social studies education." As of press time, Barton and Dreisbach had not responded to interview requests.

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