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Barbara Pitkin

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The New Texan Textbooks' Silver Lining

Posted: 05/21/10 02:15 PM ET

Today's vote to adopt new social studies standards in Texas ushers in a new phase of the public response to the hard right turn taken in one of the nation's largest textbook markets. Since the Texas Board of Education voted on the new proposal in March, educators and citizens across the country have weighed in on the guidelines. Concerns have focused on the politicization of education evident in the new standards. But arguments over what or who makes the cut detract from the real and ongoing issue at stake: not just what but how we teach young people about the past.

Immediately after the March Board meeting, critics seized on an amendment that cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of theorists in the World History section on "how contemporary political systems developed from earlier systems of government." The board voted to replace the founding father with the religious thinker John Calvin, among others. Incredulous bloggers quickly tagged Calvin a "religious right icon." One post described him as "basically an anchor trying to drag everyone backwards."

Candor compels me to admit that I share critics' fears that a conservative Christian agenda was the driving force behind this and other changes, such as the one listing Moses as a historical figure whose principles influenced American founding documents. But I also wonder if the zeal to question the historical significance of figures like Calvin simply because they were religious isn't itself a cause for concern.

Keeping Calvin on the social studies curriculum could be instructive, not just for Texas schoolchildren, but also for those on both the religious right and the secular left. In fact, Calvin's understanding of the relationship between church and state provides the material for engaging in the kind of historical analysis that could move contentious debates over the nature of our nation's past forward.

Calvin spent his career in Geneva working to ensure the independence of the church from interference by the town magistrates. His approach represented a marked difference from that taken in many other Protestant cities, where the secular rulers chose, appointed, and fired the spiritual leaders and determined who was and who was not in good standing with the church. Calvin's vision wasn't that of Jefferson's separation of church and state, but there's more continuity there than popular conceptions suggest.

Having students read Calvin's writings on the role of civil government in the context of his career in Geneva would provide an instance of exactly the right kind of learning about the past that we as a society should be fostering. Calvin's approach to the question of religion and politics is nuanced and complex: while he strove to preserve the freedom of the church from state interference, he also advocated close cooperation with the secular powers. Lay leaders of the church in Geneva were at the same time elected city officials. And religious heresy, as elsewhere in early modern Europe, was a civic crime, punished by the magistrates, not by the church.

The most remarkable element, however, is the fact that Calvin was refreshingly undogmatic about both the proper form of government and the ideal relationship between reformed churches and their political rulers. Thus churches considered "Calvinist" have manifested a surprising variety of relations to civil governments, ranging from complete cooperation to open hostility.

Having students analyze historical sources such as these would do more than correct that common textbook error that Calvin was solely responsible for the execution of the anti-trinitarian Michael Servetus. More importantly, it would expose young people to the stock in trade of the historian's craft: messy evidence in the form of conflicting accounts and competing claims.

That is why amid all the furor over who or what makes it into the standards in Texas, we must not neglect the more pressing imperative to equip students with the analytical skills to evaluate and interpret evidence from the past. It is one thing to learn what happened, but quite another to make sense of events gone by and assess their ongoing relevance. The new Texas standards ask students to explain the impact of the writings of Calvin and others, but the only way they can do this is by engaging in actual historical analysis.

Some may be wary of ideological commitments behind the inclusion of religious icons and their writings in textbooks used in public schools. Others may long for a simpler historical narrative, according to which any figure's historical significance can be easily assessed. But if there is one thing the so-called Texas Textbook Massacre has shown definitively, it is that history is not a monolith, because we always read the past in light of the demands of our contemporary situations. Ideological commitments need to be uncovered, probed, and assessed, not dismissed out of hand.

That being the case, we cannot afford to ignore the political dimensions of these debates in the endeavor to make sense of the past and its impact on the present. There is truth in the Party slogan in Orwell's 1984: "He who controls the past controls the future."

Calvin and his contemporaries were exceedingly aware of the challenge of rival versions of the past and the necessity to control the historical narrative. They used the new printing technology effectively to debate and spread their visions of history and their place in it. In our time, history is being made through even more novel democratic and technological channels: not just school board votes but also in the worldwide blogosphere, all spewing forth conflicting narratives. The demand for all of us to be more discriminating interpreters of the past could not be more urgent.