Houston, We've Got A Problem…

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 20, 2009 12:54 pm

Phil’s just informed us of a proposal from the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills review team to remove Neil Armstrong’s name from 5th grade textbooks because ‘he was not a scientist.’

What?! Armstrong was an engineer, professor, and it also happens he took one giant leap for mankind… on the moon!

According to the Houston Chronicle, Colin Powell, Nathan Hale, Eugene Debs, John Steinbeck, Carl Sagan, and Mother Teresa are among over 50 people proposed to be cut. According to board member Barbara Cargill, they “don’t want to burden textbooks with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of names.”

I can’t help but wonder what makes these particular individuals most forgettable.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education

Comments (25)

  1. Erasmussimo

    The change COULD BE defensible if it were part of a concerted effort to reduce the “stupid factoid” count in the history books. The wrong way to teach history is by burdening the student with lots of stupid factoids: what year de Gama round the Cape of Good Hope, when the Civil War started, who shot Abraham Lincoln, that kind of thing. That’s useless history, used only because it’s easy to test for. The right way to teach history is as a series of enlightening stories. Napoleon was brilliant, but he overreached and earned the enmity of everybody, and so he failed. The North and the South were unable to resolve their differences over slavery and trade, and so they went to war and a catastrophe ensued. President Kennedy did exactly the right things in the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear war was averted. And so on. Yes, a certain number of names crop up during this process. But the names themselves really aren’t that important. Is it important that Neil Armstrong rather than Buzz Aldrin was the first man to set foot on the moon? I think that the lesson here is that President Kennedy set an ambitious goal for the US, and by dint of heroic efforts and much brilliance, NASA met that goal. That’s what should be taught in history classes.

  2. magistramorous

    I’m disappointed that Neil Armstrong and Carl Sagan have been some of the proposed omissions, but what should be the criteria for inclusion, in your view? I agree with Stephen Hawking on this issue: the world has become so complex that no one could possibly know about all of the most important events and people. I sure hope he’s wrong about the human species nearly reaching a limit to pre-designer-human progress, though…


  3. Armand Groeneveld

    Sorry ,I don’t agree. Anything that changed to course of human history should be mentioned in a history textbook. Foot notes should supply the student with sources on where to find more details on certain events and people. In history there are no such things as “stupid factoids”. The student may not remember all of it but during certain events it may jar their memory and give them an edge over the misfits we have in government.

  4. Oded

    That is a hilarious (and sad) quote… “don’t want to burden textbooks”.. Yes, let’s not burden education with facts and knowledge, keep it as simple and easy as possible… This feels like exactly the thing you’d hear from a person who despises education – “when am I ever going to use any of this??” – and it’s amazing that these same people are the ones that control the education in Texas…

    By the way, I think I’ll disagree with you on the removal of Mother Teresa… My understanding was that she was a fraud and an extremely successful PR stunt by the catholic church… In which case, it would be good to remove her, unless it is to teach exactly that… (I’ll admit I am ignorant on this subject, but so far I buy this account..)

    I certainly encourage bringing back Neil Armstrong and many others!

  5. Erasmussimo

    Armand and Oded, the task of teaching is always one of simplifying reality so that a young mind can grasp that simplified truth. The world is immensely complex and dumping all that complexity onto students only confuses them. All teaching requires some distortion of reality; as the student grows in understanding, you can present a less distorted view. But certainly with young students you have to present them with a simpler version of the historical truth.

  6. Cain

    @5 Erasmussimo
    You propose a simpler version of history than “Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the Moon”?

  7. Anthony McCarthy

    Many years ago I heard Armstrong give a speech about the profession of engineering, a defense of it. I wonder if that could be archived anywhere. Also, it being Texas, which was once famous for an oddly Texacentric curriculum and so view of of life, history and the world, it makes you wonder who they’re including instead.

    The world is extremely complex and no one can absorb a comprehensive view of it. I’d concentrate on what was necessary to live as a responsible citizen in a democratic country and an interdependent world before going for other details. I wonder how many sports or entertainment figures these students are able to absorb as compared to people who have done something significant and of benefit to the common good.

  8. Anthony McCarthy

    — Mother Teresa… My understanding was that she was a fraud and an extremely successful PR stunt by the catholic church. Oded

    In what way a fraud? There was plenty of room to criticize the anachronistic medical practices of her hospice and some of her ideas but she operated in public for a long time in relative obscurity. I’m pretty ambivalent about a lot of her activities but you’ve gone too far.

    If you’re relying on what ideological hatchet-men like Chris Hitchens and Penn Gillett have said about her, what you get from them shouldn’t ever be confused with understanding. Neither of whom are unfamiliar with self-promotion through PR stunts.

  9. Erasmussimo

    Cain asks, “You propose a simpler version of history than “Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the Moon”?”

    Yes, because that sentence really isn’t very useful as history. It’s certainly true, but so is the statement “Buzz Aldrin sat in the LEM while Neil Armstrong began the first walk on the moon.” What’s important is that the US made a massive effort involving some of its best scientists and engineers and accomplished an astounding feat: we sent men to the moon and back. THAT’s what the history books should say.

  10. Gaythia

    I agree with Erasmussimo. I don’t believe that the textbooks, or state “Essential Knowledge and Skills” should have, as a major objective, the memorization of the names of large numbers of historical figures or other factoids. According to the links given above, these are standards for a 5 or 6th grade social studies textbook. At these grade levels, it would be great for students to understand the history of how our federal government actively encouraged and supported a federal agency, NASA, in advancing space exploration. They should understand that it was this concerted effort that enabled American citizens to land on the moon. It would be important to understand that the success of one man stepping on the moon was not that of Neil Armstrong himself but a result of the efforts of many, many people’s contributions. It would be good to expand this discussion to show how education, especially science and math education, became more important during this era (and why it is still important today). One would hope that this history could be conveyed in a way that would be inspirational for these students in building their own futures.

    Actually, it would be fantastic if the adults in this country had greater comprehension of the linkages between good governmental policies, well managed federal agencies, and the advancements in science, technology that lead to our country’s economic well being.

  11. MadScientist

    I’d say leave out Mo. Theresa, but Norm Borlaug should be in there. I love Steinbeck but I don’t see why he’d have a mention. I don’t see the relevance of Colin Powell except on a section on the first gulf war. Why is Carl Sagan even in there? I don’t see how Carl shaped the nation or the world. Maybe Nathan Hale can be dropped from the general curriculum (though he remains a figure of interest to US history). You didn’t mention Rosa Parks – she needs to stay in there as one of the more important figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Personally I think the civil rights stuff is of far more importance to the current generation than any foreign wars; there’s still a lot of change to do. Eugene Debs can be forgotten unless you’re talking about the history of workers’ unions.

  12. Gaythia

    Re: “linkages” refered to in my post, #10 above.

    It seems to me that I’ve read a good book on that topic just recently!

    State Boards of education would make really great target audiences for information about science illiteracy and what needs to be done.

    The state board in Texas in particular, because of its large size, tends to drive publisher decisions about content (or lack thereof) in textbooks for schools nationwide.

  13. Cain

    @9 Erasmussimo:
    I agree that reducing History to a list of dates and names does a disservice to both students and the subject itself. History should be taught as a narrative and the route learning of lists does little more than fill the time between the start and end of class and, as you said, makes testing easier. Not all dates and names are equal. Some are integral to the narrative.

    The narrative of the Apollo space program is, as Gaythia said, that of tens of thousands of scientists, techs, engineers, and pilots coming together under government mandate and support to place American citizens on the moon “and returning them safely home.” I don’t know how one could tell that narrative in an honest way without mentioning the goal of those tens of thousands and the final result of that goal. The goal and result is Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon on July 20 1969. Buzz Aldrin waiting in the LEM was not the goal of the Apollo program.

    Secondly, there are few things America will be remembered for in our coming millennia; The Bill of Rights, the atomic bomb and if good taste still exists in the future, Jazz. Apollo and Neil Armstrong are undoubtedly also on that list. Maybe it’s just an emotional argument but I think it is perfectly reasonable to teach his name and deeds to the children of his nation while he is still alive. I think it should be done early and often.

    Since this is Texas we are talking about maybe we can compromise. All the time they waste teaching the kids about and going on field trips to the Alamo they will instead spend teaching about Mr. Armstrong…and Jefferson…OH and Paine…and Hypatia…and Hero!

    High Regards

  14. Eric the Leaf

    More significant than Texas school board adoption policy is the National Standards established by the National Research Council for science education. More than any single effort, the standards have constrained the adoption of good science curricula. This dynamic is not generally appreciated by those critical of science education and demonstrates a lack of scholarship by writers and bloggers that attempt to address science illiteracy in the United States. I’m reminded of the adage to the effect that because we all went to school, we are therefore all experts on education.

  15. Matt Penfold

    I agree with Erasmussimo. I don’t believe that the textbooks, or state “Essential Knowledge and Skills” should have, as a major objective, the memorization of the names of large numbers of historical figures or other factoids.</blockquote

    A factoid is an untrue fact. I am not aware of anyone pushing to have textbooks contain known untruths, so what is the point of this comment ?

  16. Gaythia

    You are right Matt! According to the online definition I just looked up, I am misusing the word “factoid”, as is also true, I believe, in comment #1.

    The point has to do with the problem with teaching history by the memorization of small tidbits of information, names, dates and so forth, rather than a linked narrative of broad concepts. Not that the tidbits are untrue, just that as small facts without much context they are essentially meaningless. It is easier to test that way. However this method doesn’t lead to much understanding of history or much ability to use that historical knowledge in ways that affect the future.

    But I also find Cain convincing in post #13 above that there certainly are some names that students should learn, and arguably Neil Armstrong could be on that list. In context of course.

  17. Erasmussimo

    If you will indulge me in some grand philosophizing, I would argue that there is no such thing as a “true fact” in the strictest sense. Everything we know is an approximation, a simplification of reality. We can talk about satellites moving through a vacuum, but in fact there are no vacuums — even intergalactic space is full of photons, subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules. We can talk about light traveling in a straight line, but that’s only true when there are no intervening gravitational fields or diffracting objects — again, a simplification. So we must always teach by telling benign lies. The difference between a “factoid” and a “fact” is qualitative.

    Apologies for the grand philosophizing.

  18. Matt Penfold


    I agree with you that teaching history as just a succession of names, dates and facts is not a good thing, although I suspect you would agree with me that one needs to know some names and dates if only to have a framework on which hang new knowledge.

  19. Barbara Cargill.

    There’s your reason.

    I agree that memorization of trivia is insufficient to understanding the narrative of history, but what good is a narrative without the characters that helped shape it?

    Not saying absolutely everyone needs included, but in terms of human accomplishments in science I’d say walking on the moon is still a pretty big deal. Mentioning a few main characters – such as the first human being to set foot on the moon – is certainly called for. Eliminating them sterilizes the narrative of its human context, IMHO.

  20. Woody Tanaka

    Sheesh. This thread demonstrates why the anti-science wingnuts are so successfully politically. Here, the conversation immediately jumps to “how this action COULD be reasonable,” which assumes that the people proposing this are reasonable, and not dangerous ideologues attempting to use the public schools to push their political agendas. (Not that the fact that this is about Texas education shouldn’t be GIANT red flag) The fact that they propose to remove Armstrong, Sagan, etc., but to include a non-entity like Newt Gingrich and a dangerous blowhard like Rush Limbaugh is irrefutable evidence that they are not reasonable, but are political ideologues trying to hijack the schools and dumbify the children. Thus, the correct response is not to consider the proposal on its theoretical merits, but to fight back on what is actually going on…

  21. Erasmussimo

    The fact that they propose to remove Armstrong, Sagan, etc., but to include a non-entity like Newt Gingrich and a dangerous blowhard like Rush Limbaugh is irrefutable evidence that they are not reasonable, but are political ideologues trying to hijack the schools and dumbify the children.

    Yep, that pretty much seals it in my mind. Neither Mr. Gingrich nor Mr. Limbaugh ought to appear in any history book until, say, a graduate level course on recent American politics.

  22. Gaythia

    Woody Tanaka is right about the need to get to the essence of the debate. J. C. Samuelson names, but does not define a main target person, Barbara Cargill. Ms Cargill is a Republican state board of education board member who is known for advocating a “strengths and weaknesses” (teach the controversy) approach to teaching evolution (or non evolution).

    The fallout from decisions in Texas does affect the rest of the nation. I should have been more explicit in my comment above about the Texas state board of education’s role in lack of textbook content nationwide. Textbook publishers have kept textbooks bland by cutting items like evolution or civil rights that would prevent them from selling in southern states.

    I think that the way to fight back is to focus on concepts . The root of the argument is about major historical forces and trends. If constituencies line up to advocate person by person for Cesar Chavez say, as opposed to Newt Gingrich, I think it will be harder to rally the public against this.

    The successful role the federal government played in getting man to the moon, is one of the major historical accomplishment that deserves to be cited in the standards. This is obviously not the only major advancement in science, so what else is or isn’t in these standards is something that needs to be investigated.

    This is far from a done deal. A number of proposals are on the table. The standards are apparently for the 2010-11 school year and will not be adopted until May.

  23. Gaythia

    In an editorial regarding these social studies standards in yesterday’s Houston Chronicle, “Facing Facts, History students need to know them.” the paper asks: “Which facts need to be taught? What things do we, as Texans and Americans, all agree are true and important?”

    Again, this indicates that they are searching for feedback.

    I’m wondering how these standards deal with oil exploration, drilling and refining, the chemical industry, the interstate highway system, pollution, the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes, and Global Warming.

  24. Here’s the thing – we may not NEED discuss “what year de Gama round the Cape of Good Hope” in terms of de Gama (though my Latina American Histroy professor dad would argue that point), but what does it hurt to leave his name in? Will we discuss the arrival of Eurpoeans in the Caribbean without naming Columbus? Or the opening of trade routes between Asia and Europe without Marco Polo? Relly?

    Certainly history is a narrative of acheivement by human grous big and small. Certianly we, as a nation, fail to teach that narrative in those terms (see the NASA discussion above). But why in the world does that mean we need to remove the names of the people associated with the events?

    As to Ms. Cargill – She’s no friend to education in Texas, or anywhere else. She needs a lot of good public naming and shaming.

  25. Gaythia

    The point is that history is a narrative, from which students can learn lessons important in shaping their own futures. With regards to the Texas standards, which are for 5th grade, we should want the basis of the teaching to be about the concepts, not memorizing names and dates. Thus the standards would be about the concepts. If a lengthy list of names and dates is what is specifically given, then teachers will tend to see that as the objective and teach to the list. Names should not be left out of the narrative, and certainly individual accomplishments can and should be used as examples of inspiration for others.

    Ms. Cargill is less of a problem as an individual than she is as a part of the movement she represents. Cargill was first elected to the Texas State Board of Education in 2004. This board has been a problem long before that.

    In many states, including Texas, fundamentalist Christian and politically right wing ideologues have realized that State Boards of Education and other such boards are significant platforms for furthering their agendas. In all states the public needs to pay more attention to these boards and the elections where representatives are selected. The item above may have caught the attention of the media, but these sorts of decision about standards set and textbooks to be used are being made nationwide.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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