Revisionaries and the Experts

Thanks to all who came to last night’s screening of The Revisionaries at Binghamton University.  Despite some technical glitches, the discussion ranged widely from the meanings of science to the purposes of public education.

One of the most intriguing elements of the film and of our discussion was its theme of “experts.”

That was certainly not the only reason to view this documentary.  It tells the story of the 2010 textbook requirement hearings at the Texas State Board of Education.  As the film describes, the influence of the Texas market in defining the nation’s choices in public school textbooks has long been decisive.

Conservatives such as Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar battled with folks such as Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Ron Wetherington of Southern Methodist University, and Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network.

In the fight over the 2010 textbook requirements, conservatives insisted on a science framework in which textbooks would include creationist-friendly criticisms of evolutionary theory.  They also battled to revise history standards to emphasize the influence of conservative heroes such as Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly, and to underscore the meanings of the United States as a profoundly “Christian Nation.”

In all these battles, Don McLeroy insisted on a populist argument, one with a long and storied tradition among conservatives.  Dr. McLeroy repeated as a sort of motto, “I disagree with the experts.  Someone has to stand up to them.”  To McLeroy, this strategy applied equally well to the scientists who promoted evolutionary theory as it did to the politicians who had moved American culture to the “Far Left.”

The distrust of “experts” has long been a powerful motivator in American politics and culture, of course.  Within the universe of conservative evangelical Protestantism, it has both theological and political taproots.  As I note in my 1920s book, the role of experts played a similar role for the first generation of American fundamentalists.

But this distrust of experts has also often been taken too glibly at face value as a bald anti-intellectualism.  The distrust of experts, as seen by McLeroy’s foes in The Revisionaries, can be interpreted as a dunderheaded insistence that knowledge is a bad thing.

But McLeroy and other conservatives have a more complicated position.  In fact, McLeroy and his allies cherished the status of experts, even as they claimed to be fighting against them.  In the evolution hearings, for instance, conservatives brought in two eminent intelligent-design experts from Seattle’s Discovery Institute.  In his presentation to the board, Stephen C. Meyer prominently displayed his expert qualifications, including a PhD from Cambridge University.

Similarly, McLeroy’s close ally on the board represented the tradition of conservative evangelical expert.  Cynthia Dunbar teaches at Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971 precisely to raise new generations of fundamentalist experts.  And Dunbar wielded her expert club with ferocious abandon.  During the history hearings depicted in The Revisionaries, Dunbar attempted to silence her opponents by reminding them that she taught political philosophy “at the doctoral level.”

The Revisionaries is a must-see for anyone interested in issues of cultural contests in America’s schools.  For those out there like me who teach college classes in educational foundations or history, ask your library if they will purchase a copy for classroom use.

Beyond what I’ve described here, the film includes gems like the awkward conversation between evolutionary anthropologist Ron Wetherington and McLeroy.  The two are able to be congenial, but they aren’t able to do more than disagree with one another smilingly.

Most intriguing, the documentary demonstrates many of the complicated intellectual traditions of American conservatism, including not least McLeroy’s insistence that he plans to combat the intrusions of experts, even as he relies on his own experts to make his points.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Revisionaries on PBS « I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar… | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  3. A Christian in the Lion’s Blog | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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