Citizen Activists Push to Revise History Textbooks

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 23, 2018 8 min read
The four textbooks at the heart of the Charlotte County, Fla., challenge.
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Alfred Current is not a historian. But on what was supposed to be a pleasant April weekend dedicated to a YMCA fundraiser, here he was, tapped to make a judgment on whether four social studies textbooks in his local school district contained anything not “accurate, objective, or balanced.”

Under a Florida law put into place in 2017, any resident can challenge curriculum on those grounds, triggering a review by an independent hearing officer; and through Rotary connections, Current had been chosen by the district to assume the role in Charlotte County. So in preparation, Current took a marathon journey through thousands of pages on law, U.S. history, and global history.

Of the variety of questions this raised, there was the most humbling one of all.

“Who am I as a trained insurance professional to start judging an entire textbook as to its merit, its integrity, to its truth, and to its facts when it covers a tremendous span of topics?” he said in an interview.

You’ll learn in due course how Current responded to the task. But at its base, this is a story that goes far beyond just one school district, one hearing officer, and four textbooks.

It’s a small example of the continuing tensions over what students learn about U.S. history and how that affects civic attitudes. And it’s an illustration that even the process of determining the best way to reach consensus on what history should be taught can be fraught with complications.

Building an Army of Reviewers

The Florida Citizens Alliance is an outfit devoted to the defense of “individual rights.” The group was instrumental in writing the 2017 law and its members filed the petition in Charlotte County, with help from a textbook-review nonprofit based in Boerne, Texas, called Truth in Textbooks.

Textbook criticisms are nothing new in Texas, as anyone who remembers the husband-wife team of Norma and Ed Gabler or their protégé, Neil Frey, can attest. They exerted much influence by advancing textbook changes from what critics said was generally a conservative viewpoint.

What separates the Florida Citizens Alliance and Truth in Textbooks from earlier mom-and-pop approaches to reviewing materials is that these groups are trying to significantly expand their reach, training local activists in districts across many states. The approach is powered by some of the same populism that has boiled up in both political parties, in the sense that activists are relying on local citizens rather than professional historians to review the books.

“All of these folks were mostly solo individuals,” said Roy White, a former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who now runs Truth in Textbooks. “But nobody had ever said, ‘Hey, let’s train average citizens to review social studies textbooks.’ ”

The Florida group now sends advocacy emails to about 20,000 people and maintains a network of activists in about seven of the state’s counties who keep tabs on local classroom materials adoptions; they are trying to build that number up to 15.

About 60 Florida activists have been trained through the Truth in Textbooks’ training process, now conducted mainly online, to look for bias, “half truths,” factual errors, and omissions in the books.

About This Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, it may mean that schools have failed at that task.

Education Week is conducting a long-term investigation to better understand education’s role in the current crisis. This survey is part of that effort, which is supported in part by the Education Writers Association. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the weeks and months ahead.

The groups’ main critiques are driven by the belief that historians and publishers are too liberal, the picture they paint of America is too negative, and the historical questions for students to think about are too agenda-driven.

“Pearson has no motivation to follow these state laws, unless we get local school districts to demand that they follow them, and stop indoctrinating students,” Florida Citizens Alliance Managing Director Keith Flaugh said, referring to the well-known education publisher. “The professors who write them are very progressive, and every couple of years they reinterpret history to sell the books.”

Throughout the Florida reviews, common themes emerge in what the textbook groups are looking to change: The United States is not a democracy, they argue, but a constitutional republic. The books minimize the “Judeo-Christian” roots of the country and aren’t critical enough of Islam. They don’t highlight free-market principles enough, and over-emphasize “European socialism” and government programs. (On one textbook’s assertion that the New Deal showed how spending and low taxes could boost employment, a reviewer wrote crisply: “It did not and instead it created enormous debt.”)

Although Flaugh prefers to be called a strict constitutionalist rather than a conservative, it is not difficult to see deeply held political and religious beliefs animating some of his group’s critiques. But several of their concerns also are directly civic in nature.

Both Flaugh and White expressed a fear that if the theme of American exceptionalism, especially its founding values, isn’t explicitly highlighted in textbooks, then students won’t develop a love of the country or understand why the principles outlined in the Bill of Rights are still so remarkable today.

“If we don’t adhere to basic founding values, how can we expect our kids to believe that the United States is an exceptional form of government that has uplifted the whole world? Instead, we’re teaching them that it is an abusive, oppressive government,” Flaugh said.

A ‘Chilling Effect’ for Schools?

That the first history challenges under the law occurred in Charlotte County, a conservative district north of Fort Myers with a large influx of retirees, isn’t exactly a surprise. But it’s often hard to know exactly how community values filter down to classrooms.

Textbooks and standards don’t teach themselves, after all, and teachers use their professional judgment to decide what and how they present topics. (Charlotte County officials would discuss the book challenges there only on background and would not permit a reporter to observe any history classes.)

One reason the Florida situation merits attention is that, in itself, it’s an object study about how the civic process works. A small group of passionate citizens used lobbying and advocacy to secure the ear of a sympathetic state legislator to back the legislation. No other state has a law that goes as far as Florida’s in curriculum challenges, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research group.

Whether the law will lead to better outcomes for students remains an open question, however.

It was opposed by many groups in the state, who argued that its proponents created it to substitute one supposed ideology or bias in the textbooks for another.

“The bill may lead to a chilling effect whereby those responsible for selection are deterred from selecting books which may be objectionable to some members of the community,” says the Florida Library Association in a 2017 letter opposing the new requirements.

Curriculum officials in the county’s districts hate the law, saying that a proliferation of challenges could interfere with procurement timelines and delay school boards’ ability to get new books to students on time.

But the law has gotten an unexpected boost from some scholars, like Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at New York University.

In the mid-20th century, he pointed out, local activists from the NAACP and the Urban League successfully lobbied to get school boards and publishers to remove overtly racist textbooks in a similar way.

Of course, there is a potential downside to Florida’s approach: It’s easier for individuals to lobby for students to learn unsound or untruthful ideas. The Florida Citizens Alliance has also challenged science textbooks that teach about climate change and evolution—issues on which there is overwhelming scientific consensus but ripe ideological dispute.

Indeed, the ACLU of Florida warned during debate over the law: “Will history textbooks that include accounts of the Holocaust or the moon landing be yanked from classrooms because a resident believes those are fake events and has compiled extensive internet research in support of his objection?”

Regarding history specifically, Truth in Textbooks claims that it has found thousands of errors in the Texas books it has reviewed, and records show that publishers have accepted some of those critiques.

But an Education Week examination of its reviews, both in Florida and in other states, found that they suffer from some problems, too. Sometimes, reviewers cited suspect sources in their corrections: think-tank reports, online encyclopedias, and in one instance, language from the website of a clothing vendor.

The potential for errors “is a huge danger,” Zimmerman said. “But the answer to that danger is not to eliminate people’s voices; it’s to elicit more voices.

“There are so many angry and erroneous voices out there that to try to restrict public dialogue will feed the kind of paranoia and knee-jerk anti-expert, anti-authority narrative that we’re hearing,” he said.

‘Beyond My Comfort Level’

This is one reason why it’s ultimately heartening to read what Current, the resident tapped to serve as the hearing officer in Charlotte County, wrote in his recommendation to the school board about the books. He simply and quietly acknowledged the complexities of the situation.

Current discussed the bias he brings to the judging table. Some of the social studies textbooks made him uncomfortable, he noted, because they were so different from what he remembers from school. “Having been reared in a politically conservative, Southern Methodist family with a Baptist grandmother, I found some of the materials over the edge and beyond my comfort level. However, … I realize that there is a challenged world in which we live,” he wrote.

He noted, too, that issues like equity and teacher quality are also part of the debate about what students learn but are also “well beyond the scope of my duties.” And he was troubled that petitioners acknowledged during the hearing that they hadn’t actually read the textbooks, since they’d relied on Truth in Textbooks’ notes.

His conclusion was to recommend the county keep the books.

“My observation is that there are strong political and religious ideological differences present. To stop one or the other represents a censorship that may have unintended consequences for our community,” he concluded.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as In Fla., Citizen Activists Set Sights on Textbooks


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