Texas to vote on curriculum that changes history

The slave trade was in fact the "Atlantic triangular trade". Capitalism, with all its negative connotations, should in future be referred to as the "free enterprise system". And don't even think about buying into the theory of evolution: children must instead be taught that God created Earth using a euphemistically-titled technique known as "intelligent design".

It may sound like the backdrop to a comedy sketch, but these are instead the guiding principles by which teachers in America's second-largest state will be forced to go about the business of education, according to critics of proposed changes to the school curriculum.

After months of increasingly fractious debate, the 15-member school board of Texas is expected today to approve more than 100 pages of new guidelines governing the teaching of social studies. They changes cover everything from Cold War history to the "correct" interpretation of the US Constitution. The proposed rules stipulate, among other things, that Republican superstar Ronald Reagan should be added to a list of "great Americans". Country music can be described as an important cultural movement, but hip-hop can't. And speeches by Jefferson Davis, the slave-owning president of the Confederacy, should be taught alongside those of Abraham Lincoln.

Elsewhere, the new curriculum changes references to American "imperialism" to "expansionism", and forces teachers covering post-war politics to tell students that Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious anti-Communist show trials during the 1950s may have been justified.

Most controversial of all is a rewriting of a passage in the syllabus dealing with economics. Previously, it stipulated that eighth-grade students must learn how to, "explain reasons for the development of the plantation system, the slave trade, and the spread of slavery". In the re-worded version, the words "slave trade" were replaced with: "Atlantic triangular trade".

The elected school board includes dentists, housewives, and other laymen who have little teaching experience. Like a growing number of legislators in an increasingly-polarised country they are, however, politically divided: every one of the 10 Republicans on the committee support the proposed revisions; all five of the Democrats oppose them. At stake is education in not just the Lone Star State, but across the entire country. Texas has almost five million students, and is the largest market for new textbooks in the US. It is also one of the few states that gives its school board power to rewrite, rather than just rubber stamp, the curriculum.

In recent years, the board's annual meetings – they review a different subject each year – have turned into a noisy media circus, as lobbyists from both left and right seek to exert influence on the increasingly conservative committee. A record 206 people signed up to testify during this week's hearing.

Among the critics of the proposed changes was Rod Paige, the first African-American education secretary, under George Bush. "In Texas, we've allowed the pendulum to swing backwards and forward," he said. "I'm asking that the swing [should] be narrower and let history speak for itself."

Social conservatives, however, accuse the left of cherry-picking tiny passages from a wide-ranging document to criticise the new syllabus in its entirety.

"Most of the complaints are coming from a liberal fringe," said Jonathan Saenz, a spokesman for the Liberty Institute. "They're making a huge issue out of some very small changes. The people of Texas are simply trying to stop atheists and the extreme civil liberties lobby from taking over their history."

Triangular trade

Taking place from West Africa to America, America to Europe, and Europe back to West Africa, the lucrative international transactions from the 17th to 19th centuries were indeed triangular – and also reliant on slavery. First, slaves were shipped to North America, where they were put to work growing cash crops – such as tobacco – which were exported to Europe. The Europeans who made use of those crops went on to use their goods – such as rum, distilled from Caribbean sugar – to buy slaves in Africa. There have been other examples of triangular trade, but few so ruthlessly efficient.

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