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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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.

 

Texas Charter School Promotes Religion

Doesn’t seem like news that publicly funded schools in Texas promote religion.  But this story from the New York Times has a twist you might not have expected.

Anyone who pays attention to this stuff might expect Texas public schools to be woefully (or wonderfully, depending on your POV) entangled with religion.  Whether it is preaching in the form of Bible classes, cheerleaders with Bible verse banners, creationism in the science textbooks, or just a general Long-Game style fight for more Jesus and less Devil, Texas schools have long seemed friendly to Jesus.  Texas’ conservative “Revisionaries” have worked long and hard to make public schools friendly for faith.

A recent story in the New York Times features a different sort of religious entanglement.  In this case, it is not a question of teachers leading Protestant prayers, or students protesting against learning evolution.

In this case, a charter school has been accused of using public money to promote the Jewish religion.

The San Antonio school, Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy, teaches in Hebrew and has classes about Israeli culture.  Doesn’t seem to be a problem there.  Lots of publicly funded charter schools focus on a specific non-English language and culture.

But according to journalist Edgar Walters, the school has drawn attention as a potential church/state problem since the new charter school seems to be nothing more than a cynical reincarnation of an existing religious school.  Critics worry that religious schools are simply conducting a name change on paper in order to win public money.

School leaders insist they don’t teach religion.  But one board member admitted they have the same head of school and most of the same staff as they did when they were an explicitly religious school.  As a private Jewish day school, the Eleanor Kolitz Academy used no public money.  But now as a charter school in the same building with the same staff, they receive public funding.

Can religious schools reinvent themselves this way?  It does not seem paranoid to assume that things will go on largely as before at the Kolitz Academy.  It seems a little iffy for religious schools to simply make a name change to start raking in public moolah.

 

An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar…

Can skeptics and believers talk civilly to one another? Can creationists and mainstream scientists ever have a constructive dialogue?

Most of the time, the best efforts at culture-war mediation leave everyone only more bitter and more convinced of the “extremism” and “irrationality” of the other side.

Thanks to coverage from the Texas Freedom Network, we recently caught up with an illuminating intellectual exchange between a leading creationist advocate and a witty, informed science skeptic.  Neither one seems to have been “converted” by the argument, but the civil yet heated discussion demonstrated the possibilities of creation-evolution dialogue.

Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society, interviewed Texas creation activist Don McLeroy last month.  You can hear the full interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.  Also fascinating, you can follow the post-interview back-and-forth on Novella’s NeurologicaBlog.

As we’ve argued here before, trying to understand Don McLeroy is a great way to begin making sense of conservatism in American education more broadly.  As the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010, McLeroy spearheaded a campaign to overhaul Texas’ influential textbook guidelines.  In that fight, McLeroy cared about more than evolution.  He also promoted an emphasis on such disparate themes as the Christianity of the founding fathers, the beneficence of the National Rifle Association, and the civic value of country music.

In the May 8, 2013 interview, Novella and his colleagues asked mainly about McLeroy’s position on evolution education.

During the interview, McLeroy makes his case for teaching the scientific alternatives to mainstream evolution theory.  As Novella and his associates point out, McLeroy carefully avoids making a case for teaching creationism or any religious ideas in public schools. Instead, McLeroy consistently advocates only for teaching the scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Most of the discussion consists of a back-and-forth on the merits and weight of those criticisms.

Are there enough real scientific challenges to evolutionary theory to merit their inclusion in public-school science curricula?

One of the most intriguing points of the exchange was McLeroy’s insistence that religious thinkers are free to be more open-minded about the scientific claims of evolution.  Since religious intellectuals are open to the idea of both materialistic and supernatural explanations, McLeroy claimed, they have greater ability to weigh the evidence. This argument did not sit well with Novella and his colleagues.

Another fascinating discussion resulted from McLeroy’s defense of his anti-expert position.  During the 2010 school fight in Texas, as captured so movingly in Scott Thurman’s Revisionaries documentary, McLeroy argued that educators needed to seize control from “experts.”  Novella and his associates explained to McLeroy why this claim seemed preposterous to them.  Why should science curricula ignore the thinking of mainstream scientists—the real experts—and instead follow the inclinations of one dentist from Texas?

I was surprised to hear McLeroy’s willingness to waffle.  As I’ve argued before, McLeroy’s indictment of “experts” has a storied history, of which Novella and his colleagues seemed unaware.  For many anti-evolution activists, indeed for many conservative educational activists on a range of issues, the baleful influence of educational experts has long been assumed.  The recent trashing of CSCOPE in Texas demonstrated only the most recent emergence of this anti-expert sentiment.  I wished Dr. McLeroy had tried to articulate some of this broader anti-expert tradition.

More important than the details of the transcript, however, was the tone of the interview and post-interview exchange.  Neither Novella nor McLeroy apologized for their beliefs.  Neither held back from pointed and fundamental criticisms of the other, though as guest McLeroy tended to be more polite.  Yet the two sides managed to speak politely to one another.  McLeroy called Novella a “scholar and a gentleman.”

For his part, Novella called McLeroy

an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

Did either side walk away from this exchange converted?  Definitely not.  But was the exchange worthwhile?  Certainly yes, for several reasons.

First of all, for interested observers, this back-and-forth gave both sides a chance to make their own arguments.  Readers and listeners can see what intelligent advocates might say on some basic stumpers of the creation/evolution debate.

Second, in any tense culture-war standoff, elaborate courtesy and face-to-face meetings help defuse the tendency to demonize the opposition.  For evolution believers like me, the contours of the debate change when I hear a friendly, seemingly well-intentioned leader of the creationist cause, if only to prove that both sides can include people of good will.