There’s nothing so totalitarian as a public school board. These little central committees rule with iron fists — dictating what your children will learn, how they will learn it, and why. As the political winds change, they will mandate that your children study evolution, intelligent design, scientific know-nothingness, or some combination of these. They will stipulate whether kids will learn old or new math, read phonetically or not, and whether to paste fig leaves onto pictures in art books. When they aren’t busy debating what tomes to censor from school libraries, these dictators turn to creating good citizens — that is, the study of history and government. Textbook makers — who eat or not at the whim of the boards — cater to the politics of public education. No state board is more particular or censorial than Texas’. Accordingly, school book publishers aim to please Texas and then repackage that product for other states as well (to control costs). Every school in America, then, gets some version of the Texas historical canon. There, the political powers that dominate the state school board require a number of things of approved textbooks. Among these is the requirement that school texts teach that America is great because of our free market economic system. Leaving aside the fact that we do not have a truly free market in our country, there are serious problems with this mandate. The odiousness of it for historians can be unbearable, as it asks them to manipulate and obfuscate historical facts and evidence (it’s really hard to make the robber barons out to be heroes, for example).
Under the school board guidelines, students are taught to revere the Constitution while at the same time admiring free enterprise. The two faiths are not mutually exclusive; however, they are not necessarily mutually reinforcing either. Fortunately, schoolchildren are taught to admire and support the Constitution, but not to read it. If they did, they might discover that this grand document does not actually outline a particular economic system for our country. Capitalism is not enshrined there. In fact, capitalism didn’t come to the United States until well into the nineteenth century. Our best attempt at the free market came after the Civil War and it didn’t last long. The social and economic upheavals of the nineteenth century sold citizens early enough on regulation.
Textbooks gloss over this fact, in order to reinforce commitment to the economic system in our country. If you can’t conceive of another order, you aren’t likely to kick off the one you’ve got and try on another. Also, long-term commitment suggests perfection. If people think it’s always been this way, they aren’t much inclined to criticize the system or consider that there might be a better one. In other words, little children are being socialized to buy into our system and support it uncritically. To question capitalism is to question American virtue, hard work, or apple pie.
Now, you can’t outright lie about these things because that means you’re promoting propaganda. “Truth,” however, is an entirely different sale. So, textbook authors just don’t explain what the economic system was like in the early part of our country’s history. They talk about mercantilism in the colonial period and then don’t go into economics (aside from issues like the tariff and the national bank) until they talk about industrialization. You’re not supposed to put two and two together and figure out there might be something in between. More importantly, you’re not to believe that from the git-go we weren’t committed capitalists and that the free market wasn’t as carefully crafted as our political system. Surely, the Constitution, which so particularly sets out the three branches of government and provides for checks and balances among them, weighs in on the way our economy should work. You’d think so, but it really doesn’t. You can get that impression though from the careful omissions in public school textbooks — and, really, the Texas school board insists that you do so.