Don McLeroy’s Long Game

What do Phyllis Schlafly, Moses, and country/western music have in common? They all get happy shout-outs in new history textbooks in Texas.  Or at least, that’s what conservative education leaders wanted.  As Politico reported yesterday, new history textbooks in Texas are causing a stir.  But this time, it is liberal activists, not conservative ones, who are denouncing the textbooks as biased and ideological.

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

What Hath McLeroy Wrought?

The new textbooks were written to satisfy new standards approved years ago by the Texas State Board of Education.  Back then, conservatives on the board, led by the genial Don McLeroy and the obstreperous Cynthia Dunbar, pushed through new standards that warmed the hearts of conservative activists.

No one who watched Scott Thurman’s great documentary about these Revisionaries can forget the moments when the SBOE debated including more country-western music and less hip hop.  More positive statements about Reagan and the National Rifle Association.  More happy talk about America’s Christian past and less insistence on the horrors of racial segregation.

The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries

As Don McLeroy said at the time, “America is a special place and we need to be sure we communicate that to our children. . . . The foundational principles of our country are very biblical…. That needs to come out in the textbooks.”

Now those changes in the Texas standards have shown up in new social-studies textbooks.  As Stephanie Simons reports in Politico, liberals have complained that the new texts are woefully biased.  In some spots, the books apparently knock Affirmative Action.  They pooh-pooh the benefits of taxes.  They imply that racial segregation was really not so bad.

For those who know the history of America’s educational culture wars, this seems like a drastic turnabout.  Throughout the twentieth century, conservative school activists complained that they had been locked out of educational influence by a scheming leftist elite.  Textbooks and standards, conservatives complained, had been taken over by pinheaded socialist intellectuals.

In one of the most dramatic school controversies of the twentieth century, for instance, conservative leaders lamented the sordid roots of new textbooks.  That battle took place in Kanawha County, West Virginia, across the tumultuous school year 1974-1975.  Conservatives were disgusted by the sex and violence embedded in new literature textbooks.  But some of them weren’t surprised.

Conservative leader Elmer Fike told readers that the textbooks were bound to be rotten.  In Fike’s opinion, conservatives didn’t even need to read the books.  As he explained,

You don’t have to read the textbooks.  If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.

As the Kanawha County battle ground on, California’s conservative celebrity schoolman Max Rafferty came to town.  Rafferty, too, told a crowd of West Virginians that they shouldn’t put any faith in textbook publishers.  Those publishers, Rafferty explained, only wanted to make a buck.  As he put it,

They have no particular desire to reform anybody, do anybody any good or find a pathway to heaven.

These days—in Texas at least—the shoe is on the other foot.  The conservative standards that the state adopted in 2010 have pushed market-conscious textbook publishers to come up with books that meet them.  And at least some conservatives are delighted with the success of their long game.  As conservative school board member David Bradley told journalist Stephanie Simon, liberals who complain about biased textbooks can lump it.  “They need to put on their big-girl panties,” Bradley crowed, “and go run for office.”



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  1. I find it is “the left” that has become the great threat to true tolerance and now is the “occasion” to do something about it.

    Benjamin Wiker in “Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion” (2013) gives a compelling analysis of the West’s intellectual tradition, and how we are seeing the erosion of our great tradition of the “separation of church and state” with the rise of the “Liberalism” as an all powerful state religion. His solution: “All that counterrevolutionaries [for example–the religious conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education] need to achieve in education in order to undermine the establishment of liberal secularism is—brace yourself!—to ensure that what really happened in the past be taught in our history classes.”

    This is why I am encouraged by Simon’s story and especially the headline. This is exactly what our country needs. I believe Christianity has been the great engine of freedom in Europe–especially the Netherlands (as Kuyper describes in “Lectures on Calvinism”) and England and then here in the Untied States. Today, it is difficult to get Christianity’s great track record back in our public school’s history classes. This may be a great step forward in preserving our freedoms.

    • Dr. McLeroy, Thanks for the comment. May I ask, what do you say to critics who argue that your position imposes an un-American religious conformity on students? That public schools must be inclusive and open to all?
      On another topic, your reference to the Wiker book made me wonder if you’d seen Professor Deneen’s recent review essay of similar arguments.

    • willbell123

       /  September 13, 2014

      I’m not sure how you could possibly consider liberalism a religion, it is an ideology just like conservatism, and it is not especially exclusive. The fact that it encompasses people who run the spectrum from those that are almost libertarian to liberal socialists is a testament to how non-specific and non-dogmatic it is. Essentially it is a lot different from religion – which will usually have a specific dogma that is enforced in its members – we even have a word for those who are in a religion without following articles of its faith: heretics.

      Liberalism is not a religion, neither is Conservatism, there’s the same spectrum on either side. To call it a state religion is even more misleading – I’d argue if anything conservatism is the entrenched position in US politics, if not elsewhere as well. This is natural because by the very nature of conservatism it is the established system, the opposite being progressive liberalism which is in theory at least opposed to the established tradition being all-powerful.

      You suggest, by using the quote you use, that liberalism is rebutted by real history. I’ll try my best to be charitable here but to say the least I find that statement questionable at best. I’m not suggesting there aren’t biases in the way liberal historians investigate history, but history doesn’t fit a non-liberal narrative either. As a conservative I imagine you see a narrative in history that reveals a christian (considering you think the historical narrative refutes secularism) and morally superior US, the truth is when we look at reality we don’t see that narrative.

      Most of the USA’s founding fathers were deist or generally non-religious (including Thomas Jefferson). We enshrined separation of church and state in the first amendment. We knew we weren’t a Christian nation from one of our earliest international agreements (the Treaty of Tripoli, 1796). We were often far from morally squeaky clean, Andrew Jackson oversaw the ethnic cleansing of 45,000 Cherokee who were forced off of their ancestral lands and moved outside the borders of the United States. Attempts to fit a narrative will always lead to revisionism, we see this in David Barton’s willful attempts at subversion of facts to fit a right-wing narrative, and in Howard Zinn’s attempts to create a left-wing narrative, in the end we must conclude that there is no narrative.

      The history that is being presented in today’s history textbooks is not without its bias, but it is not selling a liberal narrative. It has just finally gotten to the point where the right-wing narrative is purged for the most part, a shift away from cold war thinking, ultimately a good thing. We do not need jingoism in our textbooks.

  2. I would say, please study for yourself to see what actually happened in the past. This is all I could ask.Studying what actually happened is NOT imposing conformity on anyone.


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