I don’t like to brag, but you ought to know that I received a 760 on my American History SAT II. A 760 out of 800.
Like I said: I don’t like to brag. Even so, you ought to know that a 760 is a very good score.
The Kaplan SAT Prep website says that “a score of 600 is considered very solid.”
If I’d gotten a 600, I probably would have cried.
600, as Kaplan suggests, is a respectable score. But that was the kind of kid I was. A perfectionist. Also, a crier.
But more than that, I was an eager student of American History. In some ways, it’s my birthright. I was born the same as the Boston Tea Party. To which I’ve long attributed my distaste for taxation without representation and beverages involving bags.
Moreover, one of the first books my father ever read to me was the Esther Forbes novel about the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain. I cried when Johnny disfigured his hand in a tragic silversmithing accident. I cried more when Rab died at the Battle of Lexington.
I loved historical fiction. Was, in fact, nuts about it. For most of my elementary school years, I was obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s Danielle Steel-ish take on our country’s past. I even cribbed large parts of the plot of The Last Silk Dress when writing my piece for the 4th grade Young Authors Symposium. Plus, it was largely due to Ann that I always remembered the date of the Boston Massacre: the 5th of March.
Did I mention that I have a well-worn VHS tape of the 1972 historical movie musical “1776”? That, to this day, I can sing along with Blythe Danner (a.k.a. Mrs. Thomas Jefferson) as she waxes rhapsodic about her husband and his prodigious violin skills?
I can. It’s true.
This is a long way of saying that it was with much consternation that I watched these past weeks as the Texas Board of Education dismantled and distorted our country’s past.
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Not content with promoting creationism, last week, Christian conservatives on the Texas Board of Education won a major victory, passing curriculum changes that left historians scratching their heads. Board Members sought to stress the Christianity of the Founding Fathers and the genius of American capitalism. They also sought to deify Ronald Reagan, legitimize Phyllis Schafly, and erase separation of Church and State.
In a stunning example of whitewashing, the Board moved to downplay Martin Luther King Jr. and instead focus on the Republicans in Congress who supported civil rights legislation.
“Republicans need a little credit for that,” Board Member Don McLeroy said. “I think it’s going to surprise some students.”
‘Surprise” is one word for it. “Enrage” is another.
McLeroy, a dentist by training and erstwhile college cheerleader, also pushed to soften history’s take on Joseph McCarthy. “Read the latest on McCarthy,” he insisted. “He was basically vindicated.”
O rly? LOL, Mr. McLeroy. ROTFL.
The Texas Board of Education is, apparently, a place where “facts” mean very little. Where reason can’t be found.
When Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat, introduced an amendment that would require students be taught that “the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others,” she was roundly defeated. And when, time after time, Board Members voted against including more Latino figures into the curriculum, Mary Helen Berlanga had had enough. She left the meeting saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America, and Hispanics don’t exist.”
They certainly can pretend that, it turns out. If the Texas Board of Education had its way, school children would never know that this country included ethnic and religious minorities. That “white” and “Christian” are not synonymous with “American.”
As it stands, Texan students can forget about Thomas Jefferson. Turns out he’s totally overrated.
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Barbara Cargill loves Jesus. She just hates everyone else.
From her position on the Board, Cargill objected to a standard for a sociology course that defined the difference between sex and gender. She was fearful, she said, that such distinctions would bring students into the frightening world of “transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else.”
Cargill, it turns out, is also not a fan of crime victims or the mentally ill. She won passage of an amendment that would teach sociology students about “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices.” Life choices like rape, eating disorders, teen suicide, and dating violence.
“The topic of sociology,” Ms. Cargill noted, “tends to blame society for everything.”
If only I’d be taught about personal responsibility. Maybe then I wouldn’t have chosen to starve my way through 11th grade.
Then again, I’m no victim. Barbara Cargill’s absolutely right. I chose my choice and I only have myself to blame.
* * *
I am, on some level, the enemy. I realize that. I’m a left-wing Jewess with a degree from Vassar in Women’s Studies. I use words like “heteronormativity” on a semi-regular basis. I’ve taken workshops on white privilege and rallied for abortion rights. I’ve volunteered for Planned Parenthood and donated to gay rights groups. I’m like Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were.” Nose and all.
I have an agenda. Of course I do. But I’m not on the Texas Board of Education. I’m not a decision-maker. I’m just standing on the sidelines, slack-jawed, as fundamentalists pervert the beautiful, awful history of this country.
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I’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ series, “Faces of America,” on PBS this week. It’s a fascinating look at the varied backgrounds of twelve high-profile Americans. Uber-WASP Stephen Colbert is one, as well as Meryl Streep. Also biracial journalist Malcolm Gladwell, Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
I reveled in the diversity Gates exposed. Diversity of ethnicity, obviously, but also experience. It’s the diversity of this country that makes it so unique. The tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The “wretched refuse.” It sounds cheesy, I know, but these people are the backbone of America.
Yamaguchi’s family was, I thought, one of the most compelling. While his family was interned in a camp in Arizona during World War II, Yamaguchi’s maternal grandfather fought for America in Europe. Most Japanese-Americans served in a segregated unit, but George Doi was part of the 100th Infantry Division, an all-white unit. In the New York Times, he was declared “unquestionably the company’s best soldier.”
My mother and I watched Gates elucidate all this to an emotional Yamaguchi, tears streaming down our own faces.
This is America, I thought. Flawed. Cruel, at times. But also a place where an immigrant can find redemption. Something worth fighting for.
This is the America that the Texas Board of Education wants to forget. Internment camps and the Trail of Tears and immigration quotas and the KKK. Racism, imperialism, expansionism, Manifest Destiny. Mexican-Americans and African-Americans. César Chavez and Dolores Huerta and Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug. Stonewall and Selma. Communists. Socialists. Tree-huggers and dolphin-lovers. Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and- G-d help us- atheists.
This is the America that the Texas Board of Education would rather you not hear about.
They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. And if we only teach the PG-version of history, we run the risk of making the same mistakes all over again.