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An Open Letter to the Students of Texas Public Schools

In a recurring public spectacle, attempts are being made to manipulate you by elected politicians (NOT historians) through the content of the textbooks you will be asked to follow in your history classes. This kind of content manipulation has a long, sad history. For example, it has been a prominent tool of every major authoritarian state of the modern era.

Fortunately for Americans (Texans and otherwise) we do not work for our political entrepreneurs, they work for us. When any public political figures try to feed us a particular view of history, we are free to engage in one of democracy’s greatest birthrights, the open and public application of skepticism and doubt.

If these new textbook standards are successfully implemented, you will be ostensibly encouraged to question many different issues. You should do just exactly that – but on your own broad terms, not their narrow ones. Here are some examples.

First, you might be asked to question the separation of church and state. Do not settle for the deceptive little queries your politicized textbooks would attempt to limit you to making. Be skeptical for real. For example, did the doctrine of church/state separation evolve during the era of the Founders, in part, in recognition of a real threat to democracy? Were some of the Founders and great American political entrepreneurs more like agnostics and atheists than like traditional Christians (look into Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln, especially)? Might contemporary advocates of closer association of religion with the state be precisely the kinds of political actors the Founders feared? Might the message of these contemporary advocates of religion in government have more in common with the program of the mullahs of Iran’s police state than with the hopes of the American Founders – struggling to create a state that served its citizens (rather than vice versa)?

Second, for example, you might be encouraged to question the importance of slavery to early American history. Do so. But consider including the following questions. Was the pre-Civil War American South a slavocracy selectively serving the narrow interests of a tiny group of wealthy planters and their hangers-on rather than a democracy for all? Did the post-Civil War Jim Crow American South systematically flaunt the American Constitution (see especially the 13-15th Amendments)? Did many, many innocent people die inhumanly treated and in shackles as part of the “triangle trade”?

Third, for example, you might be encouraged to question whether international organizations (the UN, the IMF and others) threaten American sovereignty. This is actually a great question. Conflicts of interest exist in the international arena just as surely as they do everywhere else, including in local Texas politics. As citizens of planet Earth we should be just as skeptical of the dubious shenanigans of global political entrepreneurs as we are of local ones – members of our school boards, say.

You are still free citizens of one the world’s great democracies. There is nothing to stop you from confronting these questions on their real merits. In so doing, you will be defending the form of political government we all cherish – at least the large majority of us not aspiring to be elite oligarchs. In the end, these attempts by conservative members of your state board to tweak the textbooks you read in school are more pathetic than dangerous. You have free access to vast resources – for example, Google might be censored in China, but not (yet) in Texas.

Being educated is not about what you know, it’s a lifestyle. This lifestyle has only two fundamental elements.

First, hold everything you think you know in perpetual doubt. Retain as true only those things that survive your relentless doubting. These doubt-resistant insights are the only real knowledge, the only reliable belief.

Second, always defend your right to question, publicly and often. Anyone who tries to indoctrinate you or force you to adopt a particular, narrow point of view – right or left, theist or secular – is looking to enslave you. Anyone who honestly invites you to question everything, even their own views, is a fellow citizen. The right to question – together in public, loudly and remorselessly – is our common birthright as citizens of a democracy. All other rights we have can persist only as long as we preserve this one.

These are the truths we hold to be self-evident.

Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza
Authors of Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe

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