March 21, 2010


In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right (SAM TANENHAUS, 3/21/10, NY Times)

In the 18th century, the American writer Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, himself an immigrant from France, catalogued the continent’s bewildering mix of “English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes.” He wondered, “What then is the American, this new man?”

He concluded that in America, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”

That idea was later fortified by Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of American exceptionalism, which suggested that the country was exempt from the bitter conflicts — class, religion, imperial ambition — that had convulsed Europe.

Long afterward, amid America’s own convulsions in the 1960s and ’70s, the concept of a single “race of men” looked outmoded. Didn’t race mean “white race”? And didn’t “men” exclude women? American exceptionalism might really be a form of cultural insularity.

So, universities and colleges devised new programs that prompted objections as fierce as those now being made to the Texas curriculum.

In 1968, when Harvard students demanded a black studies program, “Faculty hawks warned of the fall of Harvard, and even civilization, as they knew it,” as Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller note in “Making Harvard Modern.”

Soon an ever widening range of subjects, from gay studies to feminist legal theory and anthropology, were added, in keeping with the dictates of identity politics. Some of this thinking eventually filtered to grade schools, with children now celebrating Kwanzaa and composing essays, year after year, on the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Many of the changes were liberating, but some were narrowing and erroneous — for instance the theories espoused by Leonard Jeffries Jr., who, as head of City College’s black studies department in the 1980s, lectured on the differences between African “sun people” and European “ice people.” [...]

Though its authors say the Texas curriculum reinforces American traditions, it may instead reflect the conservative variant of identity politics, and this could invite a similar backlash.

To be fair, some of the board’s recommendations aren’t controversial. Most scholars of the cold war, left and right, think that the Venona documents — communications that record the activities of Americans who secretly spied for the Soviet Union — illuminate the anti-Communist investigations of the McCarthy period. And historians of the conservative movement will agree that Rush Limbaugh and Phyllis Schlafly are worth learning about, as are the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.

Even the Texas curriculum’s most disputed item — its assertion that the Founders envisioned America as a divinely inspired Christian nation — is not as radical as it sounds.

The point being, it's Christian, not a nation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2010 7:09 AM
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