What a 1950s Texas Textbook Can Teach Us About Today's Textbook Fight
The Texas State Board of Education preliminarily voted 14-0 today to reject a Mexican-American history textbook that scholars have said was riddled with inaccuracies. A final vote on the textbook is due Friday.
“One of the fundamental problems with the scholarship of the book is that you have non-historians writing a textbook for history,” said Trinidad Gonzales, a professor of history at South Texas College. “It’s really a polemic masquerading as a textbook, and it’s really trying to argue that Mexican-American culture, including Catholicism, is a fundamental threat to American democracy.”
But this is not the first time that non-historians have written a textbook for Texas classrooms.
A seventh-grade Texas history textbook, published in 1954, which was written by two middle school principals – one from Marshall and one from San Antonio – shows how textbook bias can become more apparent with the passage of time. Historians say the exclusion of women and minority narratives from these books can leave children who don't seem themselves reflected in the history less interested in the material.
In the acknowledgements at the front, you can find the book’s guiding philosophy:
KUT asked several experts in Texas history to review this book.
Dr. Nancy Baker Jones of the Ruth Winegarden Foundation for Texas Women’s History says one of the most obvious aspects of women’s history in Texas is missing from the book: the suffrage movement, when women fought for the right to vote.
“Preserving orthodox notions of gender and faith and nation, and to have been aware of the participation and contributions of groups other than Anglo males, was just not in the cards educationally during the 1950s,” Jones said, adding that women in the book are defined by their relationship with men.
“What you have set up here is this mythology. The women who helped these brave men were wives and mothers. They were connected to men through marriage and motherhood. They were not single women. They were not working women. They were not reformers,” Jones said. “They were the women that were in their socially approved places to the exclusion of many other roles that women have played and contributions that women have made and lives that women have lived.”
This textbook was used by public school students across Texas in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so it helped shape the perceptions and attitudes of people who today would likely be in their ‘60s.
Sam W. Haynes, another historian who analyzed this book, said two things in particular jumped out at him.
“First of all, the illustrations for the book, the photographs, which are taken from B-Movies and films about Texas history from the 1940s and 1950s,” he said. “Struck me as rather odd, this peculiar blending of popular culture and history.”
The other thing that stuck out to the University of Texas at Arlington professor and director of the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies was its characterization of Texas culture through the years.
“The textbook characterizes Texas history as a clash of cultures, which isn’t surprising,” said Haynes. “There really isn’t a sense that Texas is one of the most diverse regions in North America in the first half of the 19th century.”
Native Americans were the largest ethnic group in Texas until about 1830. They’re mentioned in this textbook from 1954, sometimes as “savages,” although the textbook says most tribes were “small and played no important part in the history of our State.”
“I think just referring to any Indian tribe as howling, I guess you could say the language reinforces the films that are used as illustrations,” Haynes said. “They all tend to perpetuate this narrative of Anglo-Saxon civilization and Native American savagery.”
The authors of this 1950s Texas history textbook sought to make the Anglo-Americans stand out as even more heroic and upstanding than was perhaps necessary. What the Texans were doing was certainly worthy of attention, even if you didn’t agree with it. But one excerpt about the Alamo is also telling, says Jesús Francisco de la Teja, the former official state historian and Texas State professor, who also analyzed the text.
“Even in 1954, people knew that the Mexicans weren’t any better armed than the Americans and in fact, the Brown Bess, which is what many of the Mexican soldiers were using, were actually antiquated surplus Napoleonic war weapons that was all that Mexico could afford at the time,” de la Teja said.
“Many of these Anglo-Americans came with American rifles that, although the main purpose may have been hunting, were also used in Indian defense and were really quite powerful weapons.”
De la Teja says, from a technical point of view, the Anglo-Americans were much better equipped than the Mexican Army when it came to small arms.
Walter Buenger, a professor in the history department at Texas A&M University, read the chapter in the textbook called “The War Between The States,” which, he says, is a “definite tip-off” that the book looks at the Civil War from a Southern point of view.
“Historians after the late ‘50s went back and actually looked at what people said at the time, and what they said at the time in the late 1850s and early 1860s was that succession was about a defense of slavery,” Buenger said. “It’s fairly clear that slavery caused the Civil War.”
The textbook acknowledges that slavery at least played a role in the Civil War, but it also treats African-Americans as sub-humans, and again, only defines their history in terms of the convenience of slavery to Anglo, white property owners.
Then there’s the chapter on what happened after the Civil War.
Benjamin Johnson, an associate professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, says that description of Reconstruction was the most difficult thing swallow.
“For those of us that know about the horrors of Jim Crow [laws], that’s really awful that that was in the textbook,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, that was not just the reigning consensus in a middle school Texas history textbook. That was the reigning consensus in the 1950s in the northern and mid-western dominated college history professoriate. That’s the way college history was written about.”
Buenger agrees. He says academics taught a whole generation to think of African-Americans as “children who were easily misled” after the end of slavery, which he says translates into modern day racism.
“If you think the past and the study of the past is disconnected from the present, you’re wrong,” Buenger said. “How you conceive of the past often conceives how you think in the present. And it’s not that I want people to knock Texas or knock the United States, but I do want them to be self-aware.”
Jones says that choice to leave out non-Anglo Texans out left them at a disadvantage.
“[T]hose who are left out of that story are left to fend for themselves and to either reform it, to challenge it, or to recreate it and to re-write it in a way that includes them and includes their story,” Jones said.
I know someone who used this 1954 Texas history textbook when she was in seventh-grade. She’s the person I borrowed it from for this story: my mother-in-law, Maria Garza-Lubeck, a ninth-generation Tejana who studied history on the way to her PhD. I asked her if the compelling narrative style “thrilled” her as a girl when she was reading it in middle school in San Antonio.
“Absolutely not. It was dull. It was boring. I didn’t belong. People that I knew didn’t belong. I wondered about that, even though I’m a history major. My history, my people, which is Mexican-American, and I’m also part Native-American so that goes even further,” she said “There was nothing really there for me to learn about, to celebrate, to understand.”
Texas history textbooks used by seventh-graders today have improved by leaps and bounds. They now include more sober discussions of the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, slavery and civil rights. School districts have more leeway to choose their own materials and are not required to use everything adopted at the state level.
This textbook from 1954 is a reminder that in the grand sweep of history, some critical self-reflection and a broader narrative scope can go a long way to improving how engaged children are in learning about where they’re from and where they’re headed.