When I moved from Illinois to Texas, years ago, my children were still at the K-12 level. Helping my seventh-grader with her homework, I was struck by my new state’s commitment to teaching the history of Texas. Earlier this month, that commitment appeared to be wavering. But today, thanks to a mobilized citizenry, Texas students will continue to remember the Alamo.
Two weeks ago, it was reported that “a panel advising the State Board of Education on what seventh-graders should learn in their social studies courses has urged deleting the label ‘heroic’ from a curriculum standard about the Alamo's defenders.” Another of the recommendations from this panel would have reduced the prior, mandated focus on Colonel Travis’s “Victory or Death” letter, written two weeks before the Alamo fell on March 6, 1836. In the letter, Travis, knowing he and his men faced certain death, vowed, “I shall never surrender or retreat.” It is the most revered correspondence in Lone Star State history.
The panel initially recommended the removal of “heroic” from the curriculum directive that requires seventh-grade Texas history courses to “explain the issues surrounding significant events of the Texas Revolution, including the Battle of Gonzales, William B. Travis’s letter “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” the siege of the Alamo and all the heroic defenders who gave their lives there, the Constitutional Convention of 1836, Fannin’s surrender at Goliad, and the Battle of San Jacinto.”
According to the panel, “heroic” needed to be removed because it is a “value-charged” word.” Of course it is! All human action and thought requires “valuing.” Everything we do and say is with a view to advancing the good and minimizing the bad. To live “without valuing”—as the committee initially seemed to recommend—is not to live at all. Nor is it to learn at all.
I have taught political science at the collegiate level for three decades. In my classes in American government, I teach that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass was heroic in his opposition to slavery. I also teach that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was heroic in giving his life for the cause of bringing American practice better into line with the Declaration’s assertion of universal human equality. Is it wrong to do so?
The rationale underlying the committee’s initial recommendation would have muzzled me in order to prevent my revealing to my students the plain truth about Douglass and King’s magnificent lives. On the basis of this flawed reasoning, Texas textbooks would forevermore be forced to flee from teaching our students the superiority of the moral principles (what the committee calls “values”) for which Douglass and King fought, and for which King was assassinated. To intentionally deprive our students of such powerful lessons about human dignity and principled courage would be the moral equivalent of child psychological abuse, depriving our students of the truth. If courage in the defense of liberty and equality is not heroic, what, precisely, is?
But that was then, and this is now. The panel’s “heroic”- and Travis-letter-purging recommendation produced a nearly immediate grassroots backlash. More than 60 citizens appeared to testify on the proposal at a public hearing last week. To its credit, the advisory panel listened. Both recommendations were shelved.
Stephen Cure, an historian and member of the ten-person advisory panel, said the recommended removal of the reference to Colonel Travis’ letter was animated only by the group’s viewthat such mention was “repetitive and unnecessary since it is impossible to teach the siege of the Alamo without teaching about the letter and its contents.”
As for the removal of the term “heroic,” it was reported that the panel “initially recommended the removal of the phrase ‘all the heroic defenders who gave their lives there’ for similar reasons — it was repetitive, Cure said.” Cure made no mention of the negative description in the group’s notes of the term “heroic” as “value-charged.” No matter. The reference to Colonel Travis’s letter has now been restored. As for the term “heroic,” that too has been retained—largely. The new language now recommended by the panel requires instruction in “the heroism of the diverse defenders who gave their lives” at the Alamo.
So, in sum, “heroic” has been changed to “heroism,” and “all the defenders” of the Alamo has been replaced by “the diverse defenders” of the Alamo.
The panel is to be commended for adding “diverse” in describing the Alamo’s defenders. Why? James Donovan, author of the 2012 book, The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo — and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation, explains: “Recently I heard a caller on a radio talk show state matter-of-factly that Sam Houston stole Texas from Mexico, and a recent book on the Alamo characterized the men who died there (and by extension virtually everyone who took part in the Texas Revolution) as greedy, land-grabbing slaveholders — and those without slaves as yearning to own them.”
This distorted view of the Texas Revolution is all the rage among ideologues who deem the Texas Revolution, as well as the American Revolution, as enterprises composed of white slaveholders, run by white slaveholders, and conducted forwhite slaveholders, whose animus toward Mexico owed to the fact that Mexico had outlawed slavery. But the panel’s recommended addition of “diverse” defenders gives the lie to this account.
As Donovan’s research reveals, “Although most of the [Texas] province’s 35,000 inhabitants were Anglo colonists, hundreds of Mexican-born Tejanos (as they later came to be called) supported the cause and fought for it.” The panel’s recommended addition of “diverse” to “defenders” of the Alamo restores this crucial historical truth.
Regarding the charge that slavery animated the Texas Revolution, Donovan remarks, “Though slavery was illegal in Mexico and its territories, including the province of Texas, immigrating slave owners could declare their chattels as indentured servants, and the Mexican authorities looked the other way once they were settled.” Donovan’s perusal of “letters written during that time by men fighting for the Texas cause” finds that, “though a few mention the fear that slavery would be eliminated, the overwhelming majority cite the ideals of their American Revolution forefathers.” Those ideals led them to rebel against President Santa Anna’s dissolution of the Mexican Congress on his way to taking on the powers of a dictator. As a result, Donovan shows, “Uprisings occurred in at least half of the Mexican states, and armed resistance broke out in a few. Santa Anna repressed them all, some of them brutally, then raised a 6,000-man army and marched north. Texas was next.”
For a few days, it looked like Texas was next in the politicization of history. That this did not happen likely owes to two factors: (1) mobilization by everyday citizens, and (2) the good will and intellectual probity of the advisory panel.
In an era when so much of the news about American education is demoralizing, Texas’ successful, “second” battle of the Alamo is a welcome boost to our morale and, more importantly, to the truth.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on September 20, 2018.