Sanitizing history is not scholarship

From the beginning, the legislative proposal to create an 1836 Project to promote “patriotic education” seemed little more than an effort to put a politically engineered public face on Texas, cleansed of the nagging blemishes that some people find uncomfortable or want to deny.

That, folks, is not education. It is propaganda.

Now that Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan have appointed the nine members of the 1836 Project Advisory Committee, the early misgivings seem valid, particularly if the panel is favorably influenced, as its chairman is, by Donald Trump’s ill-conceived 1776 Commission, which also allegedly was created to promote “patriotic education.”

What the new state committee does is important because it will be working with state agencies on ways to promote Texas history for visitors at state parks, monuments, museums and other landmarks. The panel also will create a pamphlet to be given to people receiving Texas driver’s licenses, and it can make recommendations for future legislation.

In truth, Trump created the 1776 Commission to try to whitewash the impact of slavery and racism in American history and culture and to push back during the 2020 election year against Black Lives Matter activism over the killings of Black people by police officers. The then-president wrongly claimed that some educators were trying to divide Americans on race and slavery and were teaching students to “hate their own country.”

Ideology, not scholarship, guided Trump’s appointments to his commission, and its report, issued during the closing days of his administration, reflected that fact. Instead of valid academic input from professional historians, the report was largely a compilation of right-wing talking points and ideologically slanted theories that, among other things, cast doubts on the value of multiculturalism and excused the hypocrisy in the fact that several of our nation’s prominent founders, while advocating for equality, were slave owners.

The report had no scholarly footnotes or citations, and James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said it was not a work of history but a display of “cynical politics.”

“They’re using something they call history to stoke culture wars,” he told The New York Times.

President Joe Biden promptly killed the 1776 Commission and its report after taking office.

Nevertheless, at the first meeting last week of the 1836 Project Advisory Committee, the chairman, Kevin Roberts, an Abbott appointee, called the 1776 report an “excellent piece of scholarship” and urged his fellow committee members, future invited witnesses and anyone else following the committee’s work to read it. He said the Trump commission’s report would help them get a sense of what the 1836 committee is trying to accomplish.

Roberts, who has a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Texas at Austin, is former president of a small Catholic college in Wyoming and founder and former headmaster of a Catholic school in Louisiana. Now, he is CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank in Austin, whose main interest in education is privatizing it and cutting funding to public schools. His group has a lot of influence over Abbott and many legislators.

Another advisory committee member, Sherry Sylvester, a former senior adviser to Lt. Gov. Patrick, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at TPPF. One member of the 1776 Commission was Brooke Rollins, domestic policy adviser under Trump and TPPF’s former president and CEO. She since has returned to TPPF as a senior adviser and board member.

Five of the nine members have backgrounds in history and/or education, including Roberts. They also include Robert Edison, a former Dallas ISD Teacher of the Year, who has spent his career and now retirement on educating the public on Black history. Another member is former state Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who got the Alamo transferred to state oversight.

Some critics also find the name, “1836 Project,” problematic. It marks the year Texas won its independence from Mexico. The advisory committee is charged with promoting the state’s “history of prosperity and democratic freedom.” But the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, adopted in 1836, legalized slavery and excluded indigenous groups from any rights as citizens.

The committee will hear testimony from the Texas Education Agency, but so far it is not empowered to change public school curricula. It is, however, empowered to recommend legislation, which could lead to more partisan or ideological tampering with what teachers can or cannot teach. It could open up another front in the political war against public education.

Clay Robison

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