Banning Boorstin

By Don Rollins

Mr. Hughes (not his real name) was not the kind of teacher an adolescent boy would cross more than once. He ran a tight American History classroom. Same with his basketball teams. All business, all the time. Shape up or ship out. That’s just how he rolled, our “Coach”.

While his peers were learning the less virtuous rural arts – chewing Mail Pouch, rolling Bugler cigarettes, practicing vile language and chasing farm girls – Coach was milking cows, putting up hay, stringing fence and going to church. His primary interest beyond tending the family farm was history. American, that is. And so when the time came, he shipped off to a nearby teacher’s college, lettered in basketball, graduated with honors and landed a teaching job two towns over. When a social studies position came open at his former high school, he applied and that was that for the next thirty-plus years.

Coach liked his history straight-up. The colonists, Yankees, cowboys, doughboys and dogfaces were the good guys. Period. And Coach Hughes was a Boorstin guy. Daniel J. Boorstin, that is. The scholarly, influential, conservative historian that became the go-to guy for everything from graduate dissertations to public school textbooks. So, Coach cut his academic teeth on knowing what you’re talking about before you up and open your yap.

Seems that while his more liberal college classmates were reading Henry Steele Commager, Coach was deep into Boorstin’s assertion that US history should not be read as a record of constant struggle and evolution; US history should be understood as a lesson in pragmatism perfected: republican democracy; free-market economy; upward mobility. A blessed concoction beyond improvement. According to Coach, America had endured and prospered, not because of its ideas, but because of its unshakable faith in its own self-evident perfection.

Still (and also per Boorstin), Coach showed little patience for historical revisionists, not all of them progressives. He was vexed with sloppy scholarship, conservative as well as liberal. Sure, he loathed the notion of black history; but he was no kinder to those who took umbrage with Ike’s famous condemnation of the “military-industrial complex”. (The former was a frontal attack on perfect-nation theory; the latter was a proven patriot trying to free laissez-faire capitalism from damaging entanglements.)

And so I’ll bet that May was a tough month for Coach and other old-school Boorstinians. I’ll bet the whole lot of ’em got a knot in their stockings when they heard the news that that wacky Texas State Board of Education is at it again, diddling with the nation’s collective narrative. It’s not enough that Texas fairly owns the American textbook market. No sir, the Board every now and then has to re-impose more of its hard-right agenda by tuning up the very standards upon which the texts are based. But this time around, it’s not the usual Texas tune-up: it’s a full-blown overhaul:

• That evolution thing? Overrated;

• Wall of Separation? Jefferson was taken out of context;

• Reconstruction? Nope, just the year 1877;

• Imperialism? Huh uh, expansionism;

• Robert LaFollette? Out. Eugene Debs? Out. Clarence Darrow? In.

• All out: Unionism; McCarthyism; Conservationism;

• All in: Phyllis Schlafly; Contract with America; Heritage Foundation; Moral Majority; NRA; Sam Walton; “In God We Trust”;

• Up in the air: New Deal; Holocaust; NATO; Civil Rights Act (1964); Voting Rights Act (1965); EPA.

Holy Howard Zinn! But, friends, the kicker is yet to come. Sure, this is doctrinal lunacy in the extreme. Yes, so long as the outmoded textbook exists, millions of children, parents, teachers and administrators will have to toil under the capricious philosophies and theologies of a handful of ideologues. But the real victim in all this is scholarship: not one of the people who voted these changes into being was trained as a scholar in the field of social studies; furthermore, according to the sources, not one outside, fully-credentialed expert in any of those disciplines was consulted during the process. So, we’re left with a simple scorecard to determine a sizeable chunk of the next generation’s social studies education: Republicans: 9, Democrats: 5.

And that whirring sound you hear would be the body of Dan Boorstin, turning in his grave.

A decade back, I took three years out of my ministry gig to teach social studies at my old high school. My room was one floor up from Coach’s. My first year was his last, during which I pumped him for his life story and conversion to all things Boorstin. Even then, Coach was bitching about the shoddy methodology behind California- and Texas-generated textbooks. What must he and other disciples of Boorstin be thinking as they witness the further demise of their brand of scholarly conservatism, all in the name of countering what some Board members termed, “liberal bias”? What possible good can come of supplanting scholarship and critical thinking with hubris and ignorance; and packaging them in a textbook time bomb for our nation’s young?

Coach learned from his hero the value of doing your homework before you up and open your yap. That’s a lesson evidently lost on nine members of the duly elected Texas State Board of Education.

P.S. Since finalizing its standards last month, the Board has come in for some serious turbulence – within and without Texas. You can follow the fun via online news outlets or go directly to the Board’s site:

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

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