HEARTS OF OAK: Bias in education still common today

Jonas Kane

Two educational changes in the past     week — the proposed introduction of a conservative social studies curriculum in Texas and the decision by Pepsi to stop selling its sugary sodas in schools by 2012 — shine opposing but equally illuminating lights on the role that deliberate bias plays in the education of students across the United States.

While most political and social stories on education understandably report and reflect on funding, scholastic performance and dropout rates, the basic concepts students are taught and the way these concepts are framed cannot be overlooked when considering the impact education has on students.

Regardless of whether or not they affect a school’s educational rankings, the teaching of these concepts ideally provides students with the basic knowledge they need to understand the world and to engage in critical thought throughout their lives. 

Alternately, the teaching of illusory “facts” and the use of a distorted framing of concepts have the capacity to limit how students think and how they view the world.

In Texas, the latter case appears to be the new norm. The Texas State Board of Education recently voted to modify the state’s social studies curriculum — which will possibly impact textbooks that reach millions of students even beyond Texas — to promote a politicized social view, including the occasional use of outright ahistorical facts. 

As Michael Birnbaum noted in a recent Washington Post article, the list of changes incorporates, though is not limited to, a Christianization of America’s founders, a subtle defense of McCarthyism, a denial of hip-hop’s influence —  though, of course, an inclusion of country music as a cultural movement — and a refusal to include potentially important Hispanic figures in Texas’ history.

Even Thomas Jefferson’s role in the American Revolution — and in inspiring other revolutions — has been diminished because of his apparently radical belief in the separation of church and state. As an article in The New York Times reported, an amendment to stress that the founding fathers promoted religious freedoms by not “disfavoring or promoting” one religion over another was, not surprisingly, defeated. 

While elements of history certainly can and should be debated, Texas’ proposed curriculum includes changes of the kind intended to quell curious thought — even if it means using falsehoods — in order to indoctrinate rigid, and often conveniently simplistic, views. 

The subject of history is already limited by an obvious need to be told from consensus. Texas’ changes further limit this consensus by politically slanting what students learn, rather than letting them absorb more neutral information that historians agree upon, and letting them make their own decisions from there.

Conversely, Pepsi’s global decision to remove sugary sodas from schools for students up to 18 — even if it’s motivated by declining sales or a need for good PR — represents a positive shift away from the insidious corporate intrusion into education that impacts students’ abilities to make independent choices. 

As journalists like Eric Schlosser have noted, soft drink companies have made significant financial partnerships with schools over the years to sell their products directly to kids, encouraging them to consume unhealthy beverages on a daily basis.

In addition to involving outward displays of corporate sponsorship, such as signs or logos, these partnerships have often involved quota requirements for schools, meaning that even smaller practices — such as strategic placement of vending machines, or allowing kids to drink soda during class — have contributed to pushing products in the classroom.

And if you think politics alone has biased textbooks, then you should consider some of the “corporate-sponsored” teaching materials Schlosser has written about, such as Exxon guides deriding the benefits of alternative energies or teaching materials by the American Coal Foundation insinuating that the earth could actually benefit from extra carbon dioxide.

Pepsi’s removal of sugary beverages signals a possible movement toward using education for its intrinsic purposes instead of allowing it to be sold, in part, to the highest bidder.

This is not to say that there is some universal and objective form of education. Bias will always play at least some role in how subjects — especially those relating to social issues — are taught. 

Education is dependent on the writing and teaching of humans, and, as such, some level of subjectivity will always play a role in learning systems.

But as a society, we should seek to limit the deliberate manipulation of education — whether for political or financial gain — in order to strive toward a more truly democratic system of learning for our nation’s students.


Jonas Kane is a senior English and political science major from Harrisburg, Pa.  He can be reached at [email protected].