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.”

 

 

Creationism in Texas: A Foreshortened History

Read it.  It’s good.  But be warned: this story has a fatal flaw.

Brentley Hargrove’s history of the Texas textbook wrangles is a helpful introduction to the recent round of textbook fights in the Lone Star State.

In the pages of the Dallas Observer, Hargrove introduces readers to the recent history of creationist influence in the selection of Texas science textbooks.  He offers the backstory of review-board members such as intelligent-design proponent Raymond Bohlin.

Hargrove takes the story of the Texas Textbook Two-Step back to the 1970s, when self-appointed watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler wielded outsize influence on the adoption of books.

He describes the rise to educational power of creationist dentist Don McLeroy and the board membership of theologue Cynthia Dunbar.

This story is a must-read for everyone interested in today’s culture wars over education, not just in Texas but around the nation.  It joins films such as The Revisionaries and documentaries such as the Long Game in pointing out both the peculiarities of educational politics in Texas and the broader meanings Texas school politics has for all of us.

But as a historian of these school battles, I must protest against the foreshortened history Hargrove describes.  He gives a nod to the long history of cultural battles over education.  He mentions the nineteenth-century Bible wars that rocked America’s cities.  But then he skips from 1844 to 1961.  He leaves out the formative period of today’s educational culture wars.

As he puts it, since the nineteenth century,

the fear of secularism and modernity remains as potent as ever. Yet it wasn’t until the Gablers came along that this fear took shape in Texas and assumed power.

Now, that’s just not true.  I understand Hargrove is interested in the way these battles have developed over the past fifty years.  But the way they did so was decisively influenced by earlier generations of Texas activists.

To be fair, Hargrove’s historical myopia is widely shared.  In his Observer article, he quotes prominent sociologist William Martin.  “The Gablers,” Martin told Hargrove, “were the first people to have taken this on in such as systematic way.”

Even if we make allowances for the contemporary interests of journalists and sociologists, this sort of misrepresentation of the history of Texas’ school battles can’t be given a pass.

The tradition of conservative activism in which the Gablers, McLeroy, Bohlin, and Dunbar take part has direct roots in the 1920s battles in Texas and elsewhere.

As I argue in my 1920s book, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Texas history will recognize the historical importance of J. Frank Norris, for example.  In the 1920s, Norris established the activist precedent that later conservatives followed.  Norris fulminated against the directions of 1920s public schools in ways that McLeroy, Dunbar, and the Gablers would have appreciated.

And he had even more political pull.  In the 1920s, though a state-wide law banning the teaching of evolution failed in the Texas legislature, the governor ordered textbook publishers to remove any mention of evolutionary science from the state’s textbooks.

All well and good, you might say.  But does that pre-history have anything to do with today’s textbook fights?  If we want to understand the current moment, do we really have to go so far back?  Isn’t it enough to look to the Gablers and start there?

The school fights of the 1920s are of interest to more than just nitpicky academic historians like me.  Even if we want to start with the Gablers, we need to understand the formative school battles of the 1920s.  Mel Gabler was ten years old in 1925.  The content and structure of the schools he attended was decided by the activism of pundits such as J. Frank Norris and the pusillanimity of politicians such as the Governors Ferguson.

It was in the 1920s that America first battled over schooling in the terms that have remained so familiar ever since.  The issues and positions laid down in the 1920s have become the durable trench lines in American education.

As Gabler biographer James Hefley described, by the 1960s the Gablers had become

the cream of self-reliant Middle America.  They lived by the old landmarks, took child-rearing seriously, supported community institutions, sang ‘God Bless America’ with a lump in their throats, and believed that the American system of limited and divided governmental power was the best under the sun.

How did they get to be that way?  How did they become so confident that their vision of proper schooling and society must be fought for?  The Texas the Gablers loved had been defined by the activism of the 1920s and succeeding generations.  The vision of proper education that fueled the self-confident activism of the Gablers had been established as such in the controversies of the 1920s.

If we really want to understand what’s going on today, we need at the very least to acknowledge the longer history of these issues.  We need to understand that today’s fights grew out of earlier generations, and those earlier generations did not just spring up full-grown from the Texas soil.

 

Revisionaries on PBS

The Revisionaries is coming next week to PBS.

In conjunction with Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program, we screened the film not too long ago.  At our screening we had a spirited discussion about the nature of science and the politics of education.  Now folks beyond the major metropolitan areas of New York, LA, and Binghamton will have a chance to see it.

Why would you want to, you ask?

For anyone interested in the teaching of American history, evolution/creation, the nature of American conservatism, or even just the functioning of educational and cultural politics, this film is a must-see.  Director Scott Thurman followed the goings-on at the Texas textbook review hearings of 2009-2010.  He spent time with conservative leaders such as Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar.  Thurman gave each of them a chance to explain their educational ideology.  The film shows the campaign for non-evolution to be included in science classes.  Viewers can watch the fight to change the standards for social studies, to include more Reagan and less hip-hop.

According to the National Center for Science Education website, The Revisionaries will be shown as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, during the week of January 28, 2013.  Check your local listings!

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.

 

 

The Revisionaries

I don’t often wish I lived in a bigger city.  But with the limited release of a new documentary, I’m wishing I had a chance to see it.

The Revisionaries has been released in a few cities and film festivals.  According to its producer, this documentary focuses on the intellectual and political worlds of Don McLeroy.

A short review in the New York Times emphasizes the “startling” way conservatives such as McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar injected partisan and sectarian ideas into the curriculum of Texas in 2009-2010.

As I noted in an article in Teachers College Record a little while back (behind a paywall, unfortunately, but the executive summary is public), Dr. McLeroy cared about more than just creationism.  As Russell Shorto pointed out in a New York Times article, McLeroy insisted that Texas schoolchildren be taught “two basic facts about man.  He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen.”  According to amendments proposed by McLeroy, Texas students should also learn more about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence”
and about the positive contributions to American history from such conservative icons as “Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”

I am looking forward to seeing the film.  I have a couple of worries.  Though this morning’s NYT review insists that producer Scott Thurman is “admirably evenhanded,” the clips available on the film’s website suggest that the documentary is yet another breathless expose of the deeply conservative ideas of McLeroy and his allies.

I hope not.  I think those of us outside of the intellectual world of activists such as McLeroy and Dunbar will benefit from a sincere attempt to truly understand their worldview.  After all, it is a vision of American culture and education that is enormously popular.  Another piece of journalism or filmmaking that hopes simply to mock or deride those ideas won’t help at all.  We KNOW we don’t agree with these ideas.  We don’t need to be reminded that some people hold these ideas.  What is really interesting, in contrast, are the arguments folks like McLeroy might make to support their beliefs in a young earth.

So, for those in Pasadena, NYC, Denver, Sarasota, or other screening locations, make some time to check out the film.  Be sure to send your thoughts, reviews, and comments to us here at ILYBYGTH.  Out here in the boonies, we’ll only wait for the film to get around to our neck of the woods.