The other day I discussed how Rosen Publishing had sneaked ancient astronaut beliefs into school libraries through the publication of an anthology of fringe history articles aimed at a high school readership, including a contribution from convicted child molester Frank Joseph. But at least that steaming pile of worthless literature was confined to the libraries of schools that bought it, where presumably students would have to seek it out. I was deeply disturbed to read in Slate magazine yesterday that some charter schools in Texas, which are public schools, are using strange claims about history in their curricula and actually teaching it in the classroom.
Slate focused, understandably, on creationism, the biggest threat to science education, which was more than evident in the charter curricula and materials it reviewed. This included one curriculum that until recently taught that the Loch Ness Monster was real in order to call evolution into question. However, since I am not a biologist, my interest was piqued by the weird history claims that are also being taught in Texas schools.
Slate reviewed the Responsive Ed curriculum, one used by the secular arm of a religious curriculum provider run by a creationist. Responsive Ed takes religious curricula and removes explicit references to religion.
Responsive Ed teaches its students that “anti-Christian bias” was responsible for World War I and the breakdown of the divine right of kings: “[T]he abandoning of religious standards of conduct and the breakdown in respect for governmental authority would lead to one of two options: either anarchy or dictatorship would prevail in the absence of a monarch.” But what really takes the cake is Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, Texas, a Responsive Ed school, uses the right-wing Patriot’s History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen as its U.S. history textbook. This is a book endorsed by both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh
This is how the book begins:
Is America’s past a tale of racism, sexism, and bigotry? Is it the story of the conquest and rape of a continent? Is U.S. history the story of white slave owners who perverted the electoral process for their own interests? Did America start with Columbus’s killing all the Indians, leap to Jim Crow laws and Rockefeller crushing the workers, then finally save itself with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? The answers, of course, are no, no, no, and NO.
The authors then “reject” the approach of “academics” (sound familiar?) and “left-wing historians,” who “assume that ideas don’t matter,” so the authors can declare that America’s history is a “shining light” based on personal “virtue,” by which they heavily imply Christian religion. I am not unsympathetic to the criticism that mainstream history is obsessed with issues of race, class, and gender to the exclusion of all else—but this book is a wretched bit of propaganda, so dripping with partisan polemic (whole pages are devoted to excoriating hated “liberal” academics) that it is simply offensive that anyone could teach it as a straightforward history of America.
Since I’m not particularly interested in modern history, I’m going to take a look at the section on early exploration, just as I previously did with the parallel section of Howard Zinn’s People’s History.
The first chapter begins by explaining that European powers were motivated as much by the need to bring the Gospel to the pagans as by the potential for capital gain, both, of course, being virtues since God and money are so closely entwined (Matthew 6:24). It then states that the Vikings were the first Europeans to discover America, sometime around 1000, at Vinland, but that its “historical impact was minimal.” This, at least, is correct.
The authors go on to state that voyages of discovery became possible because European monarchs had consolidated their kingdoms into “cohesive” dynastic states, which I’m not sure would accurately describe the uneasy union of Aragon and Castile, which remained politically independent despite passing under the name of Spain. They further state that the Protestant Reformation after 1517 spurred colonization as England and Spain acted out of fear that the other would convert new peoples to the wrong religion. This seems to be prima facie false since Spain and Portugal had colonized big chunks of Africa and the Americas prior to the Protestant Reformation, and the biggest colonial dispute of the era was between those two powers, adjudicated by no less a Catholic figure than the Pope, who gave Portugal everything east of Brazil and Spain everything west.
The authors describe Columbus as having undertaken his voyage of discovery in order to Christianize the people of Asia, and they claim that “only a few merchants, explorers, and dreamers” took interest in Columbus’s discoveries. This would seem at odds with the fact that as far abroad as Turkey the cartographer Piri Reis included Columbus’s material in his world map of 1513, testifying to the rapid diffusion of knowledge of the New World across the Old beyond merely a “few” merchants and dreamers.
But, overall, this early section is not too far from mainstream facts. Then things get a little wonky.
In describing the conquest of Mexico, the authors claim that the Spanish encountered “powerful Indians called Aztecs,” which is not true since the name Aztec was invented by Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1810. The Aztec called themselves Mexica, but the Europeans of the 1800s didn’t want modern Mexicans to feel a connection to pre-Conquest peoples. The authors further castigate the Aztecs for brutality and for running a “monstrously” large city with rigid class segregation, as though the Spanish were not equally devoted to preserving the distinction between nobility and commoner.
Let us not mince words. The Aztecs had some of the bloodiest sacrifices in all of world history, but the exact number of sacrifices is not known. The authors take Spanish accounts of Aztec sacrifices uncritically at face value, and they report that the Aztec sacrificed fourteen prisoners per minute for days at a time during festivals. The authors state that Cortes achieved a “stunning” victory over the “murderous mass of Aztecs” because each Castilian soldier had a “sense of individual rights, civic duty, and personal freedom nonexistent in the Aztec kingdom.” These were also non-existent back home in Spain, where subjects owed fealty to their sovereign and lords; where civic duty was obedience to God, king, and lord; and where, let us not forget, the sovereign received automatic pro forma rubberstamp approval of all acts from the Cortes, and—oh, yeah—the Inquisition was busy upholding the “individual rights” of non-Catholics to convert or leave.
The authors then claim that Europeans emphasized “group cohesion of free citizens,” which made them both tactically and morally superior to disorganized native peoples. They claim that most native peoples “lived off the land” while Europeans had “industrial” power that freed them from subsistence concerns. So who do they think was living the “monstrously” large city of Tenochtitlan, and who was feeding them? Where did they think “industrial” power came from before the Industrial Revolution?
They then claim that Spain—and indeed all Europe—at the time had “the legal framework of republicanism and civic virtue” that allowed their forces to continue on while the monarchical natives gave up as soon as their chief was slain. I imagine Emperor Charles V (who was also King Carlos I of Spain) would be quite surprised to learn that he presided over a republic, or the Iroquois to learn that their semi-democratic Confederacy was really an absolute monarchy in disguise.
A sub-section discusses whether Columbus was responsible for genocide, comparing “the intrepid voyager’s courage and vision” to “anti-Columbus groups” who begrudge “the establishment of European civilization in the New World.” They assert that as few as 1.8 million Native Americans (whom they call “Indians”) lived in North America in 1491 (despite also claiming that “hordes” of hundreds of thousands of Aztecs attacked Cortes), and they deny that European-borne diseases caused a population collapse. They purposely bounce back and forth between North America above the Rio Grande and the Americas in general in order to confuse the numbers and minimize the population crash that followed Contact by restricting the inquiry solely to North America, which had a sparser population than the cities south of the Rio Grande.
That said, there is genuine controversy over the size of the Native population in 1491, but no serious historian doubts, as these authors seem to do (though not consistently), that European contact had a significant and damaging effect on Native peoples. The scholarly consensus is that as many as 90% of Native people died as a result of Contact. Advocates of high and low estimates have accused the other side bias against Native Americans or Western Civilization respectively.
More specifically, the authors claim, citing Betty Meggers, that the Conquistadors’ estimates of Native populations were exaggerated, which might well be true, except that the authors just finished telling us that they accepted without question the Conquistadors’ reports of Aztec sacrifices in all their exaggerated numbers. In their view, the structure of the Aztec hegemony was the real force allowing the Conquest since the Aztecs were so highly centralized that the Spanish merely took over for them, so that the common man merely “exchanged of group of despots for another.” This grossly oversimplifies the complex structure of Aztec hegemony, which, unlike the Inca Empire, was not an absolute monarchy but a federated system of alliances. They also blame the Natives for dying off from their own native diseases. Citing the climate-driven population collapse of the Great Basin in the 1200s and 1300s, they assert that Native populations were already in decline in the 1400s. In their view, Native Americans were doomed to die no matter what, and at best Europe merely accelerated the process.
They conclude the section by again mixing North America with Latin America when convenient for their views. They describe the emergence of the mestizo class in Mexico through the intermarriage of Spaniards and Natives, whose major achievement, they say, was adopting European culture.
At no time in this discussion of first contact do they present even a moment’s consideration of the Native peoples from their own perspective, seeing them only in terms of their role in the European narrative. For the authors, Native peoples were, in short, bloodthirsty, authoritarian warrior-monsters who nonetheless were also a sickly, miniscule race of primitives doomed to extinction. Strangely, this was also the view of many historians in the early 1800s, during the run-up to the Removal Act.
The Patriot’s History version of the Conquest is just as horrible as Howard Zinn’s, but from a completely opposing point of view. Neither one should be used as a school text book.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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