Creationist Textbook Fight: A Progressive Victory?!?

Déjà vu all over again.  That might be the sensation for those of us who have followed Texas’ political battles over textbook content.  Recent politicking has demonstrated the continuing influence of creationists in textbook decisions.

But debate-watchers may not realize that these Texas-textbook headlines represent a progressive victory.

Here’s why: Back in the 1920s, states such as Texas adopted state-wide textbook adoption policies precisely in order to make the process more transparent.  Recent work by liberal watchdogs in the Texas Freedom Network demonstrates the long-term progressive success of those 1920s efforts.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As I describe in my 1920s book, debates over the content of Texas textbooks began way back.  In the 1920s, Texas officials insisted that textbook publishers produce “Texas” editions, with large sections on evolution cut out.  More than that, Texas officials demanded textbooks that ratified a Protestant-dominated vision of American history and culture.  Ever since, as I discuss in my current book, conservative activists such as the Gablers have been able to wield outsized influence on the textbook adoption process in Texas.

Yet this long history of conservative influence in Texas textbooks is not merely the story of conservative domination of Lone Star public education.

As Adam Shapiro argues in his excellent new book Trying Biology, progressives in the 1920s fought hard to ensure that these textbook decisions were made openly and publicly.  Previous textbook purchases had been made at the local level.  Sweetheart deals between publishers and school-district officials often left students with low-quality, high-priced textbooks.

Progressive reformers wanted more open discussion of textbook purchasing decisions.  In several states, including Texas, they passed state-wide adoption laws.  In Texas a state board selects a list of approved textbooks, from which districts can choose.  Those deliberations are public events, with legal requirements to share documents and content.

In a sense, therefore, recent headlines about creationist influence on textbook purchases represent a long-term victory for those early progressive reformers.  Liberal activists in the Texas Freedom Network have been able to monitor these deliberations.  The Texas board of education is legally required to provide public access to many of their discussions and debates.  As a result, concerned liberals and science-education types have been able to mount effective and informed protests over creationist influence.

Do progressives have a long history of winning culture-war battles in Texas?  Not really.  Conservative influence in Texas public education remains dominant, as Scott Thurman documented in his film The Revisionaries.  Indeed, the Texas Freedom Network has lamented the delays and obfuscations of conservative officials as the TFN has demanded access to public records.  Nevertheless, the TFN’s strong legal case—their insistence on access to those records—represents the hard-fought victories of earlier generations of progressive activists.

 

 

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