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.




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.



Revisionaries Screening Tonight

For all those in the Upstate New York region: a reminder that we will be screening Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries tonight on the campus of Binghamton University in Vestal, NY.

The film will be shown (with brief informal discussion led by yours truly) in Academic Building A, basement room G-008.  We will begin at 5:00.

All are welcome.  There is no cost and no need to register.

The Revisionaries Are Coming!

Good news for folks in the Binghamton, New York area!

We will be screening The Revisionaries for those of us who can’t travel to NYC or elsewhere to see it.  This documentary examines the intellectual world of Dr. Don McLeroy and his allies, c. 2010.  In that year, Dr. McLeroy used his control of the Texas State Board of Education to make some changes in the requirements for Texas textbooks.  Included in those changes were a renewed emphasis on the Christian nature of the Founding Fathers, a skeptical attitude toward evolutionary science, and a host of other conservative favorites.

For more on the 2010 Texas hearings, see Russell Shorto’s great article from a couple years back in the New York Times.

Or, for those in the scenic Southern Tier of New York, come on down to our free screening.  Thanks to Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program and its Graduate School of Education, we’re showing the film a few times in coming weeks.  All of the screenings will be free and open to the public.

The first showing will be on Monday, November 26, at 5 PM.  We’ll show the film on Binghamton’s Vestal campus, Academic Building A, G-008.  Yours truly will be leading a brief informal discussion before and after.

The campus will also be showing the film a few other times in coming weeks, details TBD.

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.