An Unhelpful Development

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2009

The persistent battles over school curriculum in Texas have turned into a debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms.  It’s an unhelpful development for anyone who wants to see kids get more history in school.

The Texas Board of Education is revising the state’s social studies curriculum, the Wall Street Journal reports.  “Three reviewers, appointed by social conservatives, have recommended revamping the K-12 curriculum to emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history”  reporter Stephanie Simon notes.  

The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America’s founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man’s fall and inherent sinfulness, or “radical depravity,” which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances. The curriculum, they say, should clearly present Christianity as an overall force for good — and a key reason for American exceptionalism, the notion that the country stands above and apart.

Simon has more to say on the WSJ blog The Juggle, describing history class as “a new front [that] has opened in the curriculum culture wars.”  If so, it’s a most unwelcome and unhelpful one.  Core curriculum is already starved for oxygen in too many schools.  Fear that history is a stalking horse for religious instruction offers one more reason to downplay its importance, eliminate it from the school day, or reduce it to mere pabulum, as one commenter observes:

At this point, I don’t even care about the culture wars any more. I just wish the schools would teach a lot more history. My kids get so little history, and what they do get is mainly in the form of little nuggets of usually incorrect information. They do Columbus in October, Thanksgiving in November (and yes, they do mention God, and the kids color some pictures of Indians, usually in completely wrong attire, and that is about it). In January they learn that “Martin Luther King was a great man who got everybody together.” No mention of Jim Crow, no mention of civil disobediance, no mention of slavery. It is horrifying. My son just finished third grade and doesn’t know about slavery or the Civil War. What sense does Martin Luther King make if you don’t know about slavery? My sense is that the schools here are so scared they might offend someone, both conservatives and liberals, that they just don’t teach anything at all.”

Hard to disagree with that common sense perspective.  And even harder to see how emphasizing the “Christian character” of the U.S. is going to make secular teachers–or parents–more enthusiastic about teaching history.  It’s just what the effort to beef up core curriculum doesn’t need–turning history into the next “intelligent design” debate.


  1. The curriculum in the government-run schools should be neither pro-Christian nor anti-Christian. I do agree that current materials too often either ignore Christianity or worse are biased against it (just look at the popularity of Joy Hakim’s books). But the solution isn’t to insert pro-Christian propaganda. The schools are not the proper venue for evangelism. They ought to present a neutral take of Christianity with discussion of both its positive effects and also the negative things that certain people have done in its name.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 15, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  2. A very thoughtful commentator on religion and schools is Charles Haynes. His commentaries are available here:

    Comment by Claus — July 15, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  3. I completely agree with you Robert. This is a very unhelpful situation for the core curriculum movement in public education. Following the core curriculum you espouse or something similar to The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer is the correct choice for American public schools. My children are very knowledgeable about history because of the Bauer books on CD (unfortunately they’ve learned nearly zero about history or America in school). Both sources take a secular approach and teach the history of religion in a way that is appropriate for secular schools. With the Bauer books my kids have learned about various world religions and the role they have played in different historical events – this is education! They have a more deep understanding of Catholicism both from an academic and faith perspective thanks to family and church. That is the correct order of things for public education.

    Comment by Gina — July 15, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  4. “Both sources take a secular approach and teach the history of religion in a way that is appropriate for secular schools. With the Bauer books my kids have learned about various world religions and the role they have played in different historical events – this is education!”

    Your children have learned about various world religions. What’s wrong with teaching children about the significant role Christianity played in the founding of our country? How can you teach about Thanksgiving without teaching about Christianity? How can you teach about the settling of the West without talking about how the church served as school building, hospital in a time of crisis, town hall, etc.?

    We have the Story of the World books as well. They aren’t a complete curriculum by any stretch of the imagination – especially where American history is concerned. They are a mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes.

    Comment by marcy — July 15, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  5. I think another issue that needs to be examined is why we still (over)rely on textbooks as the single source of information. Teachers are not too fond of textbooks (at least not the ones I work with)- they stifle creative thinking and are often full of bias and misleading facts. Surely we can do better in the 21st century than a four pound book chosen because some school board member owes a frat brother a favor. There are wonderful websites, great historical fiction and just about every community has a local historical society that can help out. Let’s not jettison history just because they aren’t testing it yet (although they do here in NYS).

    I’d be careful with how much Christianity we serve up with our history (Manifest Destiny worked great for us pioneer folks; not sure if the original inhabitants of North America would concur…).

    Comment by Chris — July 16, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

  6. Hi Marci,

    My only response is that in my post I am referring to elementary level history. The role of Christianity in the founding of America and its Constitution should be taught; as I said the role that religion plays in important historical events should be a part of the curriculum. That is different than evangelizing the curriculum. It can sometimes be a fine line, but it is one that needs to be heeded in public education. Regardless, the point remains that it would be terrible for the core curriculum movement to become boggled down by a select group of people wanting to turn history education into bible school.

    Comment by Gina — July 17, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

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