Lege: Give 'Em More Founding Fathers!

Testing our true American values with Western civilization

Do students at Texas universities need to think more like the most conservative Founding Fathers? That was the subtext at the April 20 meeting of the House Higher Education Committee, when members discussed the proposal from House Speaker Joe Straus to offer "an optional curriculum that emphasizes ethics, Western civilization, and American traditions to satisfy portions of the Texas Core Curriculum." While right-wing think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation back the plan, terms like "American traditions" set off alarms in curriculum circles as code words for a conservative doctrine of American exceptionalism.

First established in 1987, the core curriculum is supposed to broaden students' education beyond their chosen majors. By statute, it's the job of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to approve what courses count: The law simply states the core curriculum must include liberal arts, humanities, and sciences and political, social, and cultural history. While details were scant on exactly what an alternative curriculum would entail, Lorraine Pangle of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas at Austin called it "a better version of the general education that makes up the core."

The politically and culturally loaded proposal would place the United States of America as a philosophical and political descendent of ancient Greece and would study any culture outside that tradition either as critics or for comparison. This isn't the first time that the Lege has contemplated dabbling in the curriculum. Last session, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, proposed a School of Ethics, Western Civilization, and American Traditions for UT-Austin: At the time, critics noted it would be the state's only constitutionally mandated school and would come with immense political baggage. While that proposal died in committee, this curriculum change in its potential effects would be more pervasive and statewide.

With far more pressing charges like the funding crisis on the committee's plate, it would seem Western civ courses aren't exactly a top legislative priority. Committee member Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said, "I asked the question during the hearing, 'Why are we doing this?' and the response I got from the chairman [Dan Branch, R-Dallas] was basically that the speaker had put this on the list of charges."

In his testimony, Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said all three topics proposed in the charge are already commonly taught. The real issue, he said, is to "make sure that students have better advising so they can pick from among the plethora of courses available."

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