When former New York senator and scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan died in 2003, he was celebrated for his hugely productive careers in both politics and academia, and admired for his wit. His aphorism — “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” — was often cited.

But as the 21st century careens along, Moynihan’s premise has taken a beating. Technology has made it easier for ideologues to only get information that reinforces their existing views. Moynihan’s assumption that people could carry on arguments over policy issues while agreeing on basic facts has been obliterated. The most prominent examples: Those on the left like to cite the skepticism many conservatives have about climate change, which runs counter to the views of the vast majority of scientists. And those on the right often bring up the warnings many progressives make about the risks of genetically modified food, which also are contrary to the views of the vast majority of scientists.

This partisan framing goes far beyond such high-profile issues. Every day, Americans can watch TV shows, check out websites or listen to podcasts that present not just different opinions but different factual frameworks. And as a deeply troubling recent story in The New York Times pointed out, this fact shading is now common in school textbooks.

The New York Times analyzed eight of the most popular history textbooks used in both California and Texas public schools — textbooks with the same authors and same publishers. In both states, laws have been passed and teaching standards set that reflect the values of state lawmakers and members of the state board of education. As a result, there are now basic differences in how the history books in America’s two most populous states deal with such profound issues as race and the economy.

In discussions of the “white flight” phenomenon from the 1950s and 1960s in which millions of white Americans moved from big cities to more homogenous suburbs, the California history textbook published by McGraw-Hill says some of these Americans were “driven by a desire to get away from more culturally diverse neighborhoods” — i.e., racism. The Texas textbook states that some of these Americans “wished to escape the crime and congestion of the city” — also loaded language.

In discussions of capitalism, The New York Times noted California textbooks “sometimes read like a brief from a Bernie Sanders rally.” Those in Texas celebrate the wealth-creating free-market economy.

The same differences are apparent in how the textbooks deal with everything from gun rights and the Harlem Renaissance to immigration and gender. In California, The New York Times noted, education bureaucrats persuaded one textbook publisher to not use the word “massacre” to describe how 19th-century Native Americans responded to white settlers. In Texas, they got another publisher to emphasize religious values of America’s founders.

The sad news is there is little reason to hope that this front in America’s ongoing culture wars is going to change. A survey of 8,000 Americans released in 2018 by researchers at YouGov and the More in Common civics group found that while most Americans are generally centrist, 14% of residents are “starkly polarized” people on the left and right who tend to “dominate public debate in the digital age.”

Such Californians and Texans likely love their state officials putting their thumbs on the scales in the teaching of history. But the rest of us should fear this as one more sign of the clout of a relative handful of Americans who reject ideas that don’t fit in with their worldview, facts be damned or shaded.

American history has long been framed by those who write it. That’s clearer the more divided we get.

Editorial by The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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