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Friday, March 19, 2010

Texas Textbooks

Apparently a lot of people are upset about what Texas is doing to their history textbooks. Texas wants to put more emphasis on people like John Calvin in the founding of America rather than Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson supported a separation of church and state as well as was an anti-religious person. And Texans do not like that. They want to change some other details in history so that students would more likely be conservatives.

Now I am not going to be defending Texans because clearly there is nothing to defend. They are changing the subject of history for their own goals that they would like rather than it being history as it is. There is nothing virtuous in what Texas is doing. So I want to make that very clear that I am not going to be defending Texas. What I will show is that there is a certain level of hypocrisy, that we do not even realize, when we get angry at what Texas did. That hypocrisy happens when we say Texas textbooks are bad while our textbooks, which are currently used, are good.

What Texas did to their textbooks is not very different to what the Department of Education did to other textbooks in other public schools. Do you really believe that the textbooks that are currently being used in public schools accurately describes the history of what happened in America? In many cases they do, but there are very important cases which they misrepresent or they completely omit. Thus, it is not just the fault of Texas, the entire education system has the history textbooks written in a certain specific way.

I will give three examples that illustrate what I am trying to say. But before I give those examples I do want to say that I am not in favor of public education or any centralized system of "education". There are many reasons for that which I do not want to get into, I will just give one relevant reason. That reason is exactly what happened with Texas. When you have an institution that can control education then it can misrepresent textbooks and mandate that every public school use these approved textbooks. The danger is that when there is a centralized body it can decide what kind of "education" children get in schools. In George Orwell's 1984, there is a line which says, "he who controls the past controls the future". Maybe different people interpret it in different ways but I have interpreted it as saying that those who can control what history (past) represents can make the people of the present strive towards a particular goal in the future. This is a dangerous kind of a power that should not be centralized.

Now I will give three examples of the history that we have been taught in schools themselves that either omit or misinterpret past events. The first example is how we have been taught about the "robber barons". What we are taught to know about the "robber barons" is that these are the industrialists that have became rich by the expense of the poor and as a result grew enormously rich. They were monopolists who managed to control everything in the economy and as a result they got rich off everyone while in the process doing a lot of harm to the people. No one else was able to compete against them and so their products got worse, again harming the consumer of these products. And it is precisely because of the anti-trust laws that we have implemented were the people finally released from the enormous power of these monopolists.

Were there people that are known (I take offensive to this term) as the "robber barons"? Certainly, that part is true. Did they get enormously rich? Yes they did. Were they monopolists? Yes they were. Were there such things as anti-trust laws? Yes. Did these anti-trust laws break up the monopolies? Yes they have. This part of history is all fine. The problem is how these events are all put together in textbooks and made to put a important interpretation point. The point that is implied here in this interpretation is that it is the government that has saved us and it is the anti-trust laws of the government that protect us. What really happened? Well, those events did really happen. But they need to be interpreted the correct way. Let us take someone like John Rockefeller. Rockefeller should be treated as a hero not as a villain. What did Rockefeller do? He managed to reduce the price of oil so much, to such a small cost, that nearly everyone was now able to afford themselves oil. Not only that, he kept on improving his quality of oil for a lower cost every year (this is contrary to what we have been taught about monopolies). Furthermore, he came up for hundreds of new inventions for the garbage which is produced when oil is produced. He was a monopolist, but why was he a monopolist? Monopoly is an economic situation when there is only one supplier. He was a monopolist because his products were great. Not only the quality but the price as well. This is why no one else was able to compete against him, because he was the best. Consumers were not hurt by Rockefeller. They were benefited by him. The main group of people who were upset at Rockefeller were the competitors. They failed to be as good as he was, so they used the law to punish his success. He was a rich person, that is true, perhaps the richest ever. By why is that necessarily a bad thing? If someone puts so much work and effort into improving the world he should be rich for his accomplishments. Rockefeller got rich but not at the expense of the people. The people were benefited also form him. Both were better off. Now what these anti-trust laws really do, what the real intention of these laws are, is not to protect the consumer. Consumers did not need to be protected from Rockefeller. Their real intention is to be used as a cheap attack by competitors against other competitors from preventing them from growing too large in size.

The second example is the Civil War. The way the North presents the war is differently from the way the South presents the war. It turns out that the North's version has some very significant problems with it. The impression I got of the Civil War when I first learned it was pretty much the following: The North were the good guys, the South were the bad guys, the North wanted freedom for slaves, the South did not, there is a war over this, so Abraham Lincoln, the greatest president ever, comes along and frees the slaves. Again the details of history is mentioned in textbooks but the interpretation of history is flawed. The Civil War did happen and there was a president called Lincoln and he did free the slaves. But what actually happened with these details? First, the Civil War was not a war about slavery, it had nothing to do with slavery, it was a war about economics, the freeing of the slaves was only a consequence. Second, Abraham Lincoln was a terrible president. He abused his presidential powers as if he was a tyrant. Third, Lincoln was a white supremacist. He has said that he does not care about blacks and if he can win the war without freeing the slaves he would do that.

The sad thing is that when I graduated high school (which was a private school, but the textbooks had to have been approved by a central body) I considered Abraham Lincoln to be the greatest president and Thomas Jefferson to be the worst. I also thought Jefferson was a bad guy, we owned slaves after all. It was not until in the future when I really learned what was going on with Jefferson and his slaves, until I realized the situation he was in. Jefferson was not a white supremacist and he did not hate blacks, he even tried to get freedom for slaves, yes he should have tried harder, but he wanted blacks to be free also. Now I have a completely reversed view. I do not care about Lincoln anymore, while Jefferson is not only my favorite president he is one of my biggest heroes of all time, the amount of respect I have for this guy is equivalent to how a Jew treats one of the "great" living Rabbis. Actually, Thomas Paine is the only founding father I hold to a higher hero status than Jefferson. Paine actually managed to free some slaves and do some absolutely amazing things (was this taught in history books?). It is interesting how history can be taught to make a person think in a certain way.

The third and final example is the Great Depression. What are we taught? We are taught that in around 1929 there was a terrible economic crash. The free market was responsible for the crash. And it was FDR with his anti-free market New Deal program that got us out of the Great Depression. Was there a president FDR? Yes. Was there an economic crash? Yes. Was there a New Deal program? Yes. But the problem is the interpretation of this historical event. Did the New Deal get us out of the Great Depression? No, it only prolonged the effect. The goal of such an interpretation of history if of course to make people think that free markets do not work. However, textbooks omit another economic crash of 1919! In 1919, there was a big economic crash, possibly even bigger than that of the Great Depression. The president at that time took more of a free market approach by allowing businesses to fail. After a half-a-year to a year in 1920 the economy became healthy again. Why is this important event completely omitted from textbooks? Because it contradicts what supposedly happened during the Great Depression.

Public school textbooks have a twist to them. Their message, hidden behind the historical interpretations, is that the government intervention is good. A Christian school would use textbooks which presents Christianity as a force of good. Why would a Christian school use a textbook that would make itself look bad? Public schools are run by the government. Why would the government ever use textbooks that shows itself to be bad or clumsy? The people behind public education obviously see government as a force of good and so they would present a version of history that shows government intervention being beneficial.

In conclusion, it is not just Texas, it is everyone. We all made this mistake.

Here are some videos expounding on what I was saying about history:
Link 1
Link 2
Link 3
Link 4 (50 minute lecture video).
Link 5 (Hitchens on Paine)


  1. You're right that history textbooks tell a particular story and mythologize certain figures, but you're characterizations are at least as inaccurate. Rockefeller may have produced a good product, but anti-trust laws were put in place to promote competition. A free-market economy only works if there is competition.

    The issue which started the Civil War was States’ Rights – the right of each state to determine whether or not their citizens could own slaves vs. the federal government’s right to do so. The founding fathers saw the Civil War coming; the North and South, even then, were split over the issue of slavery. Lincoln was not a white supremacist (though he was probably as racist as everyone else at the time). He said he would do whatever was needed to preserve the Union:

    “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

    That he wasn’t an Abolitionist, a member of what was then considered a crazy fringe group, does not mean he was a neo-Nazi.

  2. "But you're characterizations are at least as inaccurate":
    First of all, it is 'your'. But whatever that is a trivial error. You would have to defend that claim. I produced examples of history not covered in history textbooks, important examples. I am more accurate than what you will find an a standard textbook. What do you not like what I said? Is it what I said about anti-trust laws? You need to understand I was stating what really happened before these anti-trust laws. Something you would not see in textbooks. Then I said that anti-trust laws are not necessary. This later remark is not a historical statement, this is a economic statement. If you can show I am wrong with this statement then does not make my historical observations "at least as inaccurate" it is rather that I made an economic error.

    "A free-market economy only works if there is competition.":
    The free market is not about competition. It is about voluntary human cooperation. Competition is a almost always a consequence of a free market. But like I said I do not support anti-trust laws nor do I have any problem with monopolies. If a producer becomes a monopolist in a completely fair way then good for him, we will greatly benefit from his success.

    Yes Lincoln was a white supremacist. Read the following quotation by Lincoln, how is this not white supremacy?:

    "I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race."

  3. Honestly, I know only a little bit about economics and the anti-trust laws, so I won’t debate you further there. But I know quite a bit about the Civil War, and I’ll point out two things:
    1) Lincoln was a politician. Whatever his personal feelings may have been, he would never have gotten the people to agree to a policy that treated blacks and whites as equals. Which brings me to 2) you can’t judge a man from the mid-1800s by the standards of the early 21st century. Lincoln believed whites were superior, yes, but so did nearly everyone else in the Western world. Even most Abolitionists weren’t for equality for blacks, just freedom from slavery. The belief of a white man in the 1860s that whites were superior is not morally the same thing as a similar belief today.

    Lincoln was far from the perfect, virtuous president of modern American mythology, but it is unfair to lump him in with skinheads and neo-Nazis by labeling him a “white supremacist.”

    One more thing. This is a blog comment, and I don’t have an editor. Don’t try to score points by citing typos.

  4. "Honestly, I know only a little bit about economics and the anti-trust laws, so I won’t debate you further there.":
    I also do not know much about economics but I am learning about them slowly. From my understanding that I currently have, I am opposed to anti-trust laws. Nor would I support laws abolishing monopolies. But this discussion would be divored from the topic of history since it is economics after all.

    I fail to understand why you keep on defending that horrible man, Lincoln. What kind of excuse is it to say, "you cannot judge a man from mid 1800's"? This reminds me of the kind of defense believers of the Bible do when I point out to them genocidal passages. They tell me, "it was just a different time back then". So that means killing people was fine back then? No, of course not. If Lincoln simply had the idea that blacks were more animal-like than the white man but they needed to be treated fairly then that would be defendable because the idea that they were more animal-like can be excused back in the 1800's. But what of treating them fairly? No, he was not for that. Consider Thomas Paine, man of the 1700's, my hero, who actually did manage to free slaves, and fought for freedom not just in America but in England and later France, who opposed capital punishment. Paine was a failed married man but as far as his ideas go they were virtuous by today's standards. Or consider Lysander Spooner, a liberty philosopher, of the 1800s, who trully supported freedom of the blacks, opposed Lincoln. He was also from the 1800s but he thought differently, and virtuously. It is no excuse to say Lincoln was from 1800s, he should be called for what he truly is, a terrible person. I am happy to say that he got executed, he deserved it. (Wow, I am beginning to sound like a redneck.)

    "but it is unfair to lump him in with skinheads and neo-Nazis by labeling him a white supremacist.":
    You will have to defend this claim. Where did I say in my post or in my response to you that he was a neo-nazi or a skinhead? Being a white supremacist does not necessarily imply that one has to belong to the Ku Klux Klan.

    "One more thing. This is a blog comment, and I don’t have an editor. Don’t try to score points by citing typos.":
    I never try to score points against the people I argue with by pointing to trivial spelling or grammatical erros. That is pointless. Indeed, if you actually read my response to you after I pointed out the 'your' error I immediately said, "But whatever that is a trivial error." I said, "trivial error", therefore I noticed it is a pointless observation in an argument I only put it there to correct you. How is that trying to score point?

  5. Well, I'm an economist, and I agree mostly with Baruch, although not completely. Certainly monopolies arise in our society, and I think they should probably be controlled, but ours is not a free economy. Barriers to entry are created by government policy. I also happen to hate historicist approaches to ethics (see Popper's The Poverty of Historicism for more on why.) I like to use a standard text alongside Zinn's People's History, with some original readings thrown in too.
    The problem is, history books should be written in a way that is in keeping with economic laws, not counter to them. From this perspective, most current texts fail, and we teach econ as a senior elective, if at all, so students don't learn why these things are fallacies before reading them.
    White supremacist or not, Lincoln certainly cared not at all for due process, habeus corpus, or anything other than his 'union.' His supporters should explain why they support divorce, rather than defending the right of a man to beat his wife half to death before agreeing to a divorce.
    Anti-trust laws do not 'protect competition' they outlaw it. Regarding the Depression, the stories about 'free markets destroying themselves' ignore the true cause - in 1912 we instituted the Federal Reserve system, which led 8 years later to an inflation-backed boom, and 10 years later to the predictable collapse.

  6. Hello Puzzled. I am very much interested in economics. I am an idiot when it comes to economics but I plan to learn more. At the moment I am reading Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations". Not sure what to read next, maybe Carl Menger's "Principles of Economics".

    I agree with you regarding monopolies. In our current economy we need laws regulating monopolies. However, our economy is not a free economy and monopolies arise, in nearly every case, by regulating their competitors or imposing barries to entry. Thus, in our current system we require laws against monopolies. However, I do support a gradual movement to a free enterprise system.

    You are dead-on about saying that anti-trust laws do not protect competition but outlaw it. Freidrich Hayek's argument against anti-trust laws was essentially saying that because the law is so obscure no business knows if it is violating the law or not. And no business knows if it cuts the prices too low. Thus, they are have a fear of competiton imposed on them which leads to less competition.