“Few, if any, instruments shape national culture more powerfully than the materials used in schools,” states a recent article about textbooks around the world in The Economist. It is not just that textbooks are the first books that people in many places encounter; they are also “along with religious texts, almost the only books they encounter.”
All the more reason to want to laugh, cry, snort and/or throw your hands up in the air in hearing about how the ongoing textbook battles in Texas.
As Andrew O’Hehir writes on Alternet, fundamentalist Christian/Tea Party-affiliated/creationist Texans have not been content to limit their crusade to insert discussion of “intelligent design” into science textbooks. Now, they’re extending the battle lines to social science textbooks, a fight which is,
…arguably worse, since opinions and analyses in that field can’t be subjected to the same scientific rigor. Culture-war amendments were added fast and furious to the academic standards in that area: removing references to the slave trade from the texts and praising leaders of the Confederacy; substituting “country music” for “hip-hop” in a discussion of pop culture; adding, preposterously, religious figures like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin as inspirations for the American Revolution, while deleting the word “Enlightenment.” (One board member even suggested that every reference to Barack Obama should include his middle name.)
Despite the arguments of apologists, Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were not inspired by Thomas Aquinas. Jefferson himself can be said to embody the notion of a “man of the Enlightenment,” with beliefs in the principles of science and the role of reason and rational inquiry. The architect of the Declaration of Independence was a Deist (not a Christian — of course, the 4th-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Aristotle was not Christian either).
O’Hehir describes a former chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, a dentist in the Texas suburbs, as “the most famous” figure of the textbook wars, though not necessarily the most powerful or influential according to a low-budget documentary by Scott Thurman, aptly titled The Revisionaries.
That title is reserved for former Austin School Board member Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer who teaches at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia, and “was evidently groomed for her position on the Texas board by political activists on the Christian right.” While McLeroy’s zealotry is unabashedly evidence in the documentary (he harangues “his dental patients and Sunday-school students about Noah’s ark”), Dunbar is a blander but ultimately more sinister soldier in the culture battles. In The Revisionaries, she offers platitudes about community service but look her up and you’ll see she is on the record for referring to public education as unconstitutional and a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.”
It is exasperating (and then some) to hear about what some American school children are reading, and not reading, in their textbooks. “Lower rates of citizenship and voting among minorities” are keeping the state “reliably red,” for now. Noting that “non-whites are already a minority in Texas – and a rapidly shrinking minority among those under 18″ — O’Hehir suggests that demographic and social change is already, inevitably, changing things in Texas.
McLeroy and Dunbar may see themselves as soldiers, if not prophets, in something like a religious war, but in reality they are the last to hold up the standards of a crusade that is based on Christian fundamentalist beliefs, a strong whiff of racism and ideology.
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