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Q&A: Texas board of education chairman

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–The Texas State Board of Education’s preliminary passage of new social studies standards has created a firestorm of criticism, with some media reports repeating claims that they are full of revisionist history motivated by a right-wing agenda that denies historic constitutional boundaries between church and state. Some reports even charged that the board omitted Thomas Jefferson as a historically significant figure — a false claim, according to several pages of the standards provided to the Southern Baptist TEXAN and by board member accounts. The Texas Education Association will post the standards online for public review at a later date.

Board chairman Gail Lowe (R-Lampasas) agreed to answer questions about the new social studies standards, which face a final vote by the 15-member elected board in May. The Texas board’s decisions have a significant influence on textbook content nationally because of the volume of textbooks the state purchases.

TEXAN: Will the new standards or textbooks include language stating America is a Christian nation founded upon and governed by Christian beliefs, as the Interfaith Alliance alleged in a letter to textbook publishers?

LOWE: Nowhere in our social studies curriculum standards is America referred to as a Christian nation, but historians have widely acknowledged that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles that promote the worth of the individual yet acknowledge man’s sinful nature.

The importance of religious freedom permeates the study of American history. We expect students to explain reasons for exploration and settlement of the United States, which includes their search for religious freedom (taught in both Grade 5 and Grade 8 American history courses) and to describe how religion and virtue contributed to the growth of representative government in the colonies (Grade 8). We also require students to describe the fundamental rights guaranteed by each amendment in the Bill of Rights. Previously, only a handful of the Bill of Rights freedoms were addressed directly in the curriculum standards.

In addition, we believe students should understand the contributions of people of various racial, ethnic and religious groups in the United States (Grade 5, Grade 8 and high school U.S. history since 1877). And in U.S. government, students will study how government policies or court decisions have affected a particular racial, ethnic or religious group.

Religion and faith are a vital part of the American culture, and have been since our founding, but no single religious adherence is addressed in our standards. We recognize that all individuals have inalienable rights endowed by God, not by government, and that religion and morality are necessary pillars of society, as George Washington said.

TEXAN: How do you respond to the Interfaith Alliance’s allegation that the conservatives on the board believe “the Founders did not intend for the nation to have separation of church and state”?

LOWE: A critical priority of the State Board of Education in our revision of the curriculum standards has been to emphasize the founding documents, such as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution. We believe students need a stronger grasp of the freedoms guaranteed in these documents. The First Amendment very clearly prevents Congress from establishing a national church, but it also promotes the free exercise of religion. Students need to understand that this is what the founders intended. It is inaccurate to say the founding fathers were neutral about religion; most were strong proponents of religious faith but did not believe in a national church controlled by the federal government.

TEXAN: Why was Thomas Jefferson removed from the Enlightenment period and where does he appear in the new standards?

LOWE: A proposal had been made to list Jefferson in the world history course with European Enlightenment figures John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who influenced political revolutions from 1750 to the present. Since Thomas Jefferson and his political philosophies are so heavily emphasized in the study of American history and U.S. government courses, members voted not to add this reference in world history so students could devote more time to learning about these additional philosophers.

Thomas Jefferson is taught in Grade 5 as a founding father and patriot hero. Students must be able to state his contributions during the Revolutionary Period. Jefferson also is taught in Grade 8, where students must explain the significant role he played during the American Revolution. In high school, students must identify the contributions of the political philosophies of the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, on the development of the U.S. government, as well as identify him as a significant individual in the field of government and politics.

As author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also will be studied in reference to that pivotal document.

The only historical figure mentioned more times than Thomas Jefferson in our curriculum standards is George Washington. There is no way students in Texas will avoid learning of his contributions to our country.

TEXAN: Is the conservative bloc of the board allowing its religious beliefs to cause it to push an “inaccurate history of our country” and indoctrinate students in right-wing political ideology?

LOWE: The social studies framework is not about religious dogma, church traditions or specific denominational beliefs. To the secular, radical left thinker, however, any mention of religious belief is anathema. It is those voices who are screaming most loudly because they do not want to admit the extent to which religious liberties and religious faith have influenced our country.

TEXAN: How do you respond to those who say the board has brought ideology into the classroom in its fight over how and what students are taught?

LOWE: The American education establishment has been dominated for years by secularism and radical leftist philosophy. Perhaps this is most evident at the university level, but that influence has spread to the public school classroom. Many parents are upset about the abandonment of traditional American values, our loss of freedoms as citizens, and the lack of civic understanding reflected by the general public. In Texas, we believe parents are full partners in the education process, and our Education Code states they are to be directly involved in the development of the curriculum expectations. These new history standards will bring much-needed ideological balance to the textbooks and will emphasize the important principles about our country that the average parent and taxpayer expects of our education system.

TEXAN: How would you describe your philosophy of public education considering the culturally diverse country we now live in?

LOWE: I believe all students should be afforded the opportunity for a well-rounded education. We are a culturally diverse country, but the concept of e pluribus unum [from the many, one] is important and is part of what makes the United States such a unique nation. Those principles that unite us should be the focus.
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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  • Jerry Pierce