Book Review Of “Drive Thru History America: Foundations of Character”

Review Of “Drive Thru History America: Foundations of Character” by David Barton & Nia Thomason
A Report by Steven K. Green, J.D., Ph.D.

In July 2009 the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund provided me with a copy of Drive Thru History America: Foundations of Character, written by David Barton and Nita Thomason, to evaluate for religious content and historical accuracy, as well as its appropriateness for use in a public school classroom.2 My evaluation is from the perspective of one who has taught, litigated, and written about church-state matters for more than twenty years. Although I am not a specialist in public school curriculum, I have studied and litigated matters related to religious expression in public schools involving both devotional and curriculum issues. Additionally, I am a historian of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, specializing in its constitutional and religious influences.
In my opinion Drive Thru History America: Foundations of Character is inappropriate for use in public schools because it includes devotional religious content that seeks to impose particular religious truth-claims on students. Since 1962 the Supreme Court has consistently held that public schools cannot engage students in prayer, Bible reading, and other devotional activities.3 Public schools, like other government entities, lack the authority to promote religious fealty or interfere with a parent’s right to control the religious upbringing of his or her children.4 Additionally, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution serves as a guarantor of religious non-coercion and religious equality.5 These concerns are most prominent within the public school environment, where school authorities exercise coercive power over children.6 The Court has also expressed concern about the subtle conforming pressures that exist within public schools when religious activity is directed by teachers or their surrogates, including fellow students.7
Based on these concerns and principles, the Court has forbidden public schools from not only engaging students in worshipful activities, but also from seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religiousvalues through the curriculum.8 Even passive reminders of the importance of religious fealty violate the command of religious neutrality.9 Additionally, lower courts have held that schools may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, expose students to religious materials that are of a proselytizing nature or seek to instill religious devotion in students.10
There is nothing objectionable with informing students about the role of religion in the nation’s development – in fact, such instruction can be an important part of a well-rounded education. Nor is there anything wrong, pedagogically or legally, with informing students about the religious beliefs of historical figures and how those beliefs impacted their lives. These laudable objectives should not be interpreted, however, as granting license to curricular material that seeks to impress religious fealty and devotion among public school students.11
Barton’s and Thompson’s history curriculum falls into this latter category and, accordingly, should not be approved for public schools. It displays a clear devotional tone and contains a number of religious truth-claims that cross the line into promotion of a particular religion. Beyond this, the curriculum presents a problematic historical account of the Founding period that falls well outside mainstream scholarly understanding, providing inaccurate, incomplete and biased profiles of various leading figures from that era. Instead of providing an evenhanded account of the religious aspects to the nation’s founding, the series promotes a skewed and misleading view of the religious influences in the various figures’ lives. It takes historical data out of context, offering it as proof of a figure’s worldview. And most troubling, it crosses the constitutional line by encouraging students to consider devotional issues and make religious confessions of faith. Any school district adopting this curriculum would likely face a constitutional challenge.

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