A Dubious Exceptionalism: What Texas Can Learn From the World History Curriculum Standards of Nearby States
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In a 2016 Baker Institute study of religion coverage in the Texas social studies curriculum, I noted “a general consensus among U.S. scholars that as the world becomes more interconnected and American society more religiously diverse, students need a basic working knowledge of the world’s religions.” In succeeding years that consensus appears to have grown even stronger. In a 2017 supplement to the National Council of Social Studies framework for social studies state standards, religion scholars affirmed that the academic, non-devotional study of religion allows K-12 students to develop skills that “are invaluable in a society whose increasingly multicultural schools, workplaces, and local, national, and international public spheres all need informed, critical, and engaged citizens.” And in 2019, a national summit on religion and education brought together experts from various disciplines to formulate action items for improving K-12 religious studies education across the United States.
Nowhere is such improvement more required than in Texas. As I argue in that 2016 report, the Texas social studies curriculum standards (and the instructional materials adopted to implement them) do not give public school students the balanced coverage of religion they need to fully understand the world and function effectively in an increasingly diverse society. Much of this imbalance is traceable to the influence on the curriculum of Christian nationalism (also known as Christian Americanism), an ideology that claims that the United States is an essentially Christian nation in which the Bible should be normative for law and public policymaking. (Christian nationalists often refer to the U.S. as a “Judeo-Christian nation,” which typically means “biblical” in a conservative Christian sense, as it excludes the tradition of rabbinical thought that animates Judaism today.) Members of the Texas State Board of Education (TXSBOE) are politically elected and are not required to possess any academic expertise in the subject matters they oversee. In 2009 and 2010, when the current social studies standards were developed, a bloc of Christian nationalist members dominated the board. Board members “passed over credentialed field specialists in favor of ideological allies with little or no relevant credentials,” and at times directly modified the curriculum standards to reflect Christian nationalist beliefs. By 2018, Christian nationalist influence on the board had diminished, and an interim effort to “streamline” the social studies standards rectified some of the problems discussed in my 2016 report; regrettably, however, much of the Christian nationalist bias, and resulting religious imbalance, remained.
Now, however, the TXSBOE has an opportunity to revisit the issue of religion coverage in social studies. In 2021 and 2022, the board is scheduled to review and revise the existing curriculum standards—known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS (pronounced teeks)—for public school social studies. (The review process will also need to incorporate recent state legislation aimed at prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, as discussed later in this report.) The 2021-22 review process opens the possibility of correcting the deficiencies that plague the current social studies TEKS, thereby providing Texas students with an accurate and balanced account of the impact of major world religions on the course of human history globally.
In hopes of facilitating the board’s TEKS review effort, the present report undertakes a limited comparison of the Texas social studies TEKS with equivalent curriculum standards from five nearby states: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Together with Texas, these states comprise the Southwestern Region of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The purpose of the comparison is to identify lessons curriculum developers in Texas can learn from their counterparts in neighboring states. While it would certainly be instructive to compare the TEKS with the curriculum standards of large states such as New York and California, the six states in the current comparison are culturally more similar; they are all “red states” in which evangelical Protestants are the largest religious group. Thus there is an apples-to-apples aspect to the comparison.
This comparison is limited in two ways. First, in order to keep the study manageable, I focus on world history, the area of greatest concern in my 2016 report. Second, the comparison largely restricts itself to issues raised in that report: a one-sided stress on monotheism; questionable claims of “Judeo-Christian” origins for democracy; a Western, Christian slant; and the emphasis on terrorism in the treatment of Islam.
To briefly summarize the findings discussed below, religion coverage in world history standards from the nearby states is generally more balanced than that found in the Texas world history TEKS. Standards from the nearby states avoid the one-sided stress on monotheism and the Western, Christian slant found in the Texas world history TEKS; they make no claims of “Judeo-Christian” origins for democracy; and they address terrorism without deceptively tying this global problem to Islam. Additionally, in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri, students have greater opportunity than their Texas counterparts to learn about the role of religion in world history, as we will see in the next section.
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