I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

This week’s review of the latest news ‘n’ views from around the interwebs:

Atheists for Jesus: Pulling evangelical voters to the left at FA.

Peter Greene on why teachers join unions.

rockwell teacher union thugTexas school board gives history another once-over, and Hillary Clinton is out. At DMN.

Surviving purity culture at NPR.

In this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak and women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make, and it’s women and girls’ responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people — and if they don’t, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot.

Parents in Leiyang riot over school quality, at The Economist.

A liberal ex-evangelical finds a church home, at NR.

Still no-go for yoga in many public schools, at The Atlantic.

What is behind the coddling of the American mind? It’s not just “safetyism,” says reviewer at IHE.

Students have not been coddled, they’ve been defeated.

Concerned scientists weigh in on removal of climate change and weakening of evolutionary theory in Arizona standards, at NCSE.

Queen Betsy misquotes Professor Haidt, at CHE.

Let’s call it ‘Haidt’s choice’: Pursue truth or pursue harmony.

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History by Design

No more Helen Keller! Out goes Hillary Clinton! The Texas state school board conducted another purge of its history curriculum recently. It’s tempting to see this as another right-wing curricular coup, but the winners and losers are a little more complicated. I gotta ask: Is this really the way we want to choose our history lessons?

Here’s what we know: The Dallas Morning News reported on the recent conclusions of the Texas state board of education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember other famous flaps on the board as captured by the fascinating documentary The Revisionaries. Back in 2012, conservatives on the board cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music” on the list of essential school knowledge. They wanted more Reagan, more NRA, and more conservatism in general.

These battles aren’t limited to Texas. Back in the 1990s, when Gary Nash and his colleagues tried to introduce new national history standards, they were accused of left-wing indoctrination. As one US senator complained, their suggested standards had more Bart Simpson than George Washington.

Today’s board has cut the requirement that schools teach about Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton. But they have also cut conservative icon Barry Goldwater. Plus, they have inserted stronger language that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

How did these decisions get made? A work group was tasked with evaluating historical persons and terms according to a list of questions. As the Dallas Morning News reported,

The 15-member work group came up with a rubric for grading every historical figure to rank who is “essential” to learn and who isn’t. The formula asked questions like, “Did the person trigger a watershed change”; “Was the person from an underrepresented group”; and “Will their impact stand the test of time?”

Out of 20 points, Keller scored a 7 and Clinton scored a 5.

By way of comparison, “Texas Rangers” got 16 points and “local members of the Texas Legislature” got 20. The state board didn’t have to honor these recommendations. For example, the work group recommended the removal of Billy Graham (4 points) but the state board decided to keep him.

So here’s the real question: Why are history lists composed this way? Why do political boards compile list of essential terms and facts that teachers must teach, even if no student really learns them?

Does Life Imply Creation? Don McLeroy Says Yes

Should mainstream scientists debate with creationists?  This morning we have another chance to discuss the nature of life, science, and evolution with a prominent creationist intellectual. Will anyone take it?

Don McLeroy

Science, c’est moi…

Some mainstream scientists affect a pose of exhaustion. Speaking with creationists, they say, is not worth the effort. Some folks criticize popularizers such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy” for deigning to debate young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Doing so, critics say, only feeds creationist pretensions to the label “science.” Doing so, critics insist, only gives creationists a win; it falsely implies that evolution is “controversial,” a controversy worth sharing in America’s classrooms.

Dr. Don McLeroy, erstwhile head of the Texas State Board of Education, has shared an essay he’s penned about the deficiencies of materialism.

I hope readers will take time to read and consider Dr. McLeroy’s intellectual claims. Dr. McLeroy, after all, is not your run-of-the-mill creationist. While other creationists fume and fuss over new evolution-heavy textbooks, Dr. McLeroy encourages kids to read em. Why? Because, Dr. McLeroy thinks, the truth will out. If students read about evolutionary science, they will quickly see that the evolutionary emperor has no clothes.

In his essay, Dr. McLeroy insists that only “biblical explanations” pass the test of science. As he puts it,

materialist explanations concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness, fail the test of science.

Dr. McLeroy claims allies such as Richard Lewontin, who insisted in 1997 that only our “prior commitment” to materialism makes it seem convincing.

If we can only lay aside for a moment our faulty assumptions in favor of materialism, McLeroy argues, we can see how empty they really are. For example, the astounding suggestion that something—everything—could come out of nothingness only makes sense if we assume that God is involved as the Uncreated Creator.

As McLeroy concludes,

we do see a cosmos that had a beginning and thus had a cause; we do see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we do see creatures with a life and not just a living form; and we do see man in a separate class from all the other unique creatures. All these simple observations support the ideas of Genesis; they pass the test of science. Therefore, why not give the biblical explanations a better look? As [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

Are you convinced? More important, if you’re not convinced, why not?

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Creationism’s Galileo Moment?

Creationist activist Dr. Don McLeroy said it: Give creationist kids evolution.

Why?

Because the evidence for evolution is so weak, creationist kids will be all the more convinced of the Bible’s truths.

McLeroy’s plea for evolution-heavy textbooks has left us controversy-watchers scratching our heads.  Did he really say that?

McLeroy leapt to national prominence a few years back in his role as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education.  As documented in the indispensable film The Revisionaries, McLeroy used his influence to promote a profoundly conservative vision of proper educational content for Texas schoolchildren.

Image Source: DonMcLeroy.com

Image Source: DonMcLeroy.com

As that film demonstrated, Dr. McLeroy had a knack for confounding the easy stereotypes of “right-wing” educational politicians.  For outsiders like me, it was odd to hear such a friendly, avuncular fellow insist that Texas schoolbooks needed more creationism and less “hip-hop.”

Earlier this week, Dr. McLeroy returned to testify in front of his former colleagues on the Texas school board.  This time, McLeroy surprised everyone by insisting that the board should adopt a new set of science textbooks, books that evolutionary scientists have praised for their evolutionary content.

The Texas Freedom Network has covered these hearings thoroughly.  In general, creationists have been opposing the new science books.

Not McLeroy.

Let the children read the books, McLeroy told the board.  The evidence for evolution is so weak, he insisted, that open-minded children will be convinced of evolution’s ridiculousness.

McLeroy’s testimony was so baffling to board members that a couple of them asked for clarification.  Mrs. Mavis Knight asked him if he was being facetious.  No, McLeroy explained (around minute seven of this ten-minute clip).  He really wanted students to read these evolutionary textbooks.

“Let the students,” McLeroy explained,

the inquisitive students, the ones that are not blind, look at the evidence in these books.  They don’t even give a hint to explain the complexity….Let’s get these books to the kids; let the little young student in the classroom ask, ‘Is this all the evidence that they can give?’ That’s why I think it’ll strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution.

Board member Thomas Ratliff also struggled to understand McLeroy’s position.  Did he really want kids to read evolutionary science?

Absolutely, McLeroy explained.  “I’m hoping a young creationist . . . will sit there and say, ‘Look, is this all the evidence they have? Well maybe God didn’t use evolution to do it.’”

As a stirring conclusion, McLeroy and Ratliff had this back-and-forth:

Ratliff: “So your position is that these books prove that evolution doesn’t happen and you want us to adopt them?”

McLeroy: “No.  I did not say ‘prove.’ I just say the evidence is weak.  I don’t prove anything.  I may be wrong.”

How are we to understand this strange phenomenon?  An arch-creationist plugging for excellent, evolution-rich science textbooks?  And even concluding that he may be wrong?

One commenter on the Texas Freedom Network Insider called McLeroy simply “delusional.”

But isn’t his testimony actually fairly logical?  Consistent?  Even admirable?

After all, creationists have long insisted that evolution falls apart on its own terms.  If they really believe that, doesn’t it make sense to expose people to its ridiculous claims?  After all, if evolutionary science really depends only on prejudice and closedmindedness, as creationists often assert (I’ve tracked this argument here and here, for example) , shouldn’t creationists simply give evolution writers enough rope to hang themselves?

Could McLeroy’s testimony be modern young-earth creationism’s Galileo moment?  When Galileo accepted his punishment for his argument that the earth went around the sun, he is said to have noted, “E pur si muove,”… “It still moves.”  Whatever bad scientists said, the truth was the truth.

McLeroy’s plea to expose children to good evolutionary textbooks can be taken in a similar way.  Supremely confident in the logical weakness of evolutionary theory, McLeroy can push for more and more of it.  Knowing, like Galileo, that whatever bad scientists said, the truth was the truth.

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.

 

Election Coverage: Evolution Skeptic Wins Seat on Texas State School Board

Education-watchers have long focused on the politics of education in the Lone Star State.  From The Revisionaries to Rod Paige’s skewed statistics, Texas education often serves as a harbinger of education trends nationwide.

Nowhere is this more true than in the touchy issues of education culture wars.

Yesterday’s election put one more conservative voice on Texas’ 15-member State Board of Education.

Marty Fowler of Amarillo won a resounding victory over Steven Schafersman.  The politics of the two candidates demonstrate what Texas voters in district 15 want out of their public schools.

Schafersman went down to defeat with his pro-mainstream science, pro-sex ed platform.  According to mywesttexas.com, Schafersman, “a practicing scientist in the petroleum industry with 23 years of college  teaching experience, said he ran for the board because he wants students to have  unbiased, factual and scientific textbooks and increase[d] knowledge about  contraception.”

Schafersman won a measly 20% of the vote with these positions.  Earlier this year, Fowler explained his support for teaching multiple scientific approaches–intelligent design along with evolution–in Texas’ public schools.  As Fowler put it in an interview with an Amarillo newspaper:

“Evolutionists would say that we progressed to this point through a series of unplanned, random circumstances and random events.  I don’t believe that tells the whole story. I think there is more to our creation that indicates an intelligent being that has played a significant role.”

Beyond the issue of evolution/creation, Rowley won support as the more consistently conservative candidate, with opinions on issues from standardized testing to vocational education that more closely matched the conservative district.

As fence-sitting observers like me have pointed out, this is the real crux of the issue in educational culture wars.  Schools prohibit sex ed and teach creationism not because teachers are ignorant, not because administrators are prudes, but rather because those educational policies are often the clear mandate from large electoral majorities.

Much as it pains me to admit it, Marty Rowley would be acting in an irresponsible fashion if he did not go to work to promote multiple scientific theories in Texas textbooks and schools.  That, after all, is what the voters seem to be demanding.