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Texas Historian Says ‘1836 Project’ Has More 'Bark Than Bite'

The law aims to promote a “patriotic” telling of the state’s history. But some critics, among them historian Brian Franklin at Southern Methodist University, worry about what that will cover.

By Bárbara Anguiano

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed HB 2497 into law, which creates something known as the ‘1836 Project.’

The law aims to promote a “patriotic” telling of the state’s history. But some critics, among them historian Brian Franklin at Southern Methodist University, worry about what that will cover — especially, when it comes to teaching  Texas’ history with racism and other race-related topics.

In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, Franklin said understanding what the 1836 Project covers and promotes is the first step in understanding the impact the bill will have. 

“To be honest, the 1836 Project bill has a lot more bark than bite,” said Franklin, who also wrote about the bill for Slate. “The text of that bill is pretty simple and pretty tame. It doesn't call for a lot of specific things, it calls for patriotic education. It mentions a few things that might fall under important moments in Texas history.”

According to Franklin, while HB 2497 promotes a version of history that’s favorable to the state of Texas, the bill that could have a larger impact is House Bill 3979, which limits how Texas teachers can talk about historical events through the lens of racism.

The controversial bill, which Gov. Abbott signed into law June 15, aims to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in K-12 classrooms.

“So what's at stake is fair and honest history education,” said Franklin.

He said because the way most Texans learn history is at the secondary level, it’s important teachers are able to give as much context as possible around historical events.

“The primary way that students, certainly on the secondary level, come into contact with these things is through their teachers,” he said. “And their teachers are trained in Texas, probably at almost all Texas universities.” 

Franklin said bills like HB 2497 don’t have specific content that needs to be followed in classrooms, meaning teachers have the freedom to show students primary documents, which he argues could be the most telling of all, when it comes to discussing an uncensored version of the state’s history. 

“And while concerningly, they [teachers] may not be able to bring up very specific ideas about what's in these [primary documents], they can't stop their students from reading these things and asking these questions, and then fielding those questions in an honest way,” Franklin said. 

Franklin said primary documents can be accessed by anyone and encouraged those interested in history to search the documents online or pick up books by reputable historians.

Franklin said it’s also important to pay attention to who is driving the narrative. 

“These are not issues that politicians typically know how to drive well,” he said. “So when you hear these things being batted around, as a citizen, ask yourself the question, 'why are they speaking about it in this way? Or are they speaking about this? Honestly, I'm going to go do some reading and find out for myself.'

He continued, "Generally, what you'll find is that a politician, who is demonizing a particular idea or promoting a particular idea has a very specific reason for it, and it generally involves maintaining their power or the party's power, and has little to do with actually the people who they claim to be protecting or promoting.”

Bárbara Anguiano is Morning Edition Host and reporter at Marfa Public Radio.