Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Revisionism: The Texas Brain-saw Massacre

In a move of which Josef Stalin and his henchmen would have been proud, the Texas Board of 'Education' has now allowed itself to become a laughing stock in the realms of Western democratic academe. Indeed, future pupils who, on their résumés and curricula vitae, cite Texas as their alma mater have just been handed an additional hurdle in making progress in the world.

So what's the big deal?

Rather than reinvent the wheel, allow me to present the words of Luisita Lopez Torregrosa's article, History Revised, Teachers Sacked: The Book Wars in Texas and Beyond

It's been a brawl for years, this education culture war that seems to take on a particularly vicious turn in the heart of Texas. The latest and most important round, a drastic revision of the social studies curriculum standards to put a conservative spin on history and economics textbooks, was given preliminary approval after a series of heated meetings of the Texas Board of Education that didn't do much to improve the image of the nation's second largest state as a sometimes small-minded political and educational backwater.

In a matter of days last week in Austin, the majority of the 15-member board, insisting they were only trying to offset liberal bias in textbooks, questioned Darwin's theory of evolution and the constitutional principle of separation of church and state; debated hip-hop and genocide in Darfur; deleted Albert Einstein and Thomas Alva Edison from textbooks; emphasized Christian teachings and fundamentalist values; adopted conservative articles of faith like American exceptionalism; promoted right-wing leaders and organizations like Phyllis Schlafly and the National Rifle Association; and refused to give adequate attention to Hispanic and African American contributions to U.S. and Texas history. To no one's surprise, on the final round on Friday, the conservatives pulled a decisive victory, 10-5 -- a tally that broke along predictable party lines, Republicans to the right, Democrats to the left. Ethnic minority members stood on the losing side. According to published reports, no experts on the social sciences were consulted. Given the conservative cast of the board, whose members are elected, the changes it has proposed will stand when the final vote is taken in May.

So, not content with airbrushing that little known scribe, Thomas Jefferson, out of its History textbooks (due to him being "too liberal"); bringing into question Darwin's Theory of Evolution; erasing Einstein and Edison from the record of historical fact, Texas now appears hell-bent on making a hick-haven Aunt Sally of itself. After all, Jefferson was only the guy largely responsible for writing the US's Declaration of Independence, so no biggy...

In Texas, you could be forgiven for thinking The Enlightenment never happened: which, again, is ironic, as the Texas Board of Education want references to it dropped too - and that, at least for the kids seeking an 'education' (that word will now have to come with caveats where Texas is concerned), this presents potentially huge and far-reaching problems.

Picture the scene: Texan kid wanders in to apply for a job outside of his/her own state's level of backwards cultural morality (certainly when compared to the wider English-speaking world, and all other Western plural democracies); gets the job; gets into a discussion over a coffee or lunch break with colleagues about where he/she stands on 'Creationism vs. Darwin', and opts to promote the nonsense which is Creationism; gets laughed out of town, considered a 'joke', and then ostracised for promoting what he/she understands to be 'the truth'; and all because, "that's what I learned at school...". How is that fair on the kid? To say nothing of the psychological problems squadrons of them might then face, in later life, as a result of the subsequent rejection of their views by the wider world.

And that's if they secured the job in the first place, assuming that the interviewing panel didn't immediately toss his/her résumé/CV in the bin when they saw that the applicant is from Texas, and will, in all likelihood, come with a whole array of cultural, historical and fundamentalist inexactitudes and confusions which they, as an employer, are neither inclined to correct, nor, understandably, don't feel that it's their job to do so. Would they feel obliged, knowingly, to employ a racist, or someone applying for a job who had never been given even the basics in mathematics? I'd like to see anyone advance an argument which suggested that it's industry's place to re-educate those who turn up for work with (thanks to their state's education system) an irredeemably conflicted view of the world - and the employer's otherwise get-along-workforce wouldn't thank them for trying.

The irony here, and going back to the Stalin analogy, is that these overtly politicised moves, made by a small (15 people) unrepresentative clique, seeking to promote only that version of events which they deem to be ideologically 'sound', is worthy of Stalin and the Soviet Union - although you can't help but feel that this wasn't a parallel which these Texan conservatives sought when seeking a model for their educational system. Who said irony was dead?

But, as professor Lopez Torregrosa points out in her piece, this is not merely a localised issue for the beleaguered kids of Texas (and their subsequent employment prospects). Far from it. With Texas having by far the largest print-run of schools' textbooks in the US, other states tend to dovetail on the back of their publishing habits in order to get volume discounts through bulk buying. This would be risible if it weren't so tragic.

Texas textbook standards are usually adopted by publishers because the state will buy 48 million of them every year, and many other states -- 47 by some counts -- will follow that model. In light of those figures, publishers will happily take their cue from the Lone Star State.

What this says, essentially, is that the rest of US academia is willing to follow Texas off an educational cliff based on nothing more than the size of a discount-garnering print run of textbooks, with no apparent consideration or concern for the veracity or credibility of the content of the textbooks in question. That's also a damning indictment of the state of US public school finances where the acquisition of textbooks is concerned. Feeling obliged to piggyback on a bad decision, just so you can stay within budget, is a scholastic travesty.

The other thing it illustrates is that there is no common approach to US public schools in terms of learning (why?); neither, so it appears, is there anything like a common national curriculum in the US (again, why?) - as the ability to chop and change the content of its public school textbooks, based on nothing more than the political whims and sensitivities of (in this case) a 15 person politburo, indicates.

I'm trying to look for an upside here: but, sadly, I can't even be sure that those who make up The Texas Board of Education are, themselves, all teachers or educators in any way at all.

So, as Texas, and perhaps the wider US (given its apparent follow-my-leader spending habits on school textbooks), sets itself up for being understandably lampooned, I'll leave the final thoughts, here, to one of its Board of Education members, Mavis Knight, when she opines:

It was not a pretty sight. The board will surely become, or has already become, the butt of jokes on late-night shows and "Saturday Night Live."

Next time you meet someone who's insistent that humans shared the planet with Dinosaurs, or that the world is only six thousand years old, or that the Fossil Record and actual science have no value, chances are, they'll hail from Texas...

Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. -- Voltaire.
Post Script: 25th Jan 2013... Revising The Revisionaries: The Texas Board of Ed Loses Power over Textbooks


  1. Bren! A very well written and researched piece. Thank you!

    I can hardly make light of the topic as it is so frightening, and the underlying consequence is nearly criminal...however...I did say I could "hardly" make light of it.

    I think it is time to rekindle Texas' desire to secede from the union. Along with Quebec, they could either exist independently, or co-dependently as "Moron-ovakia"

    While the conservatives flail daily to disrupt without solution, they fan the fires of distraction in Washington, and set intentional brush fires elsewhere in the hope that when the smoke clears, they will be in control and again the common citizenry will become their "bitches". The gap between them [the conservative benifactors] and the population who is the backbone of growth and prgress will grow larger and cavernous.

    I can't help but feel that regardless of any prgress over the next 2-3 years, an anarchial movement is at foot from both sides, and external terrorism may pale to what we will cause ourselves...I'm just saying.

  2. Cosmic Navel Lint17 March 2010 at 18:40

    Here's more on the potential ramifications of other US states following Texas's lead.
    U.S. history textbooks could soon be flavored heavily with Texas conservatism

  3. Cosmic Navel Lint17 March 2010 at 19:00

    Speaking some 30 years ago, it appears Young Zappa's prescient comments could have been written for today:

    "The school system that is costing so much is not delivering the goods. I think one of the reasons it doesn't deliver the goods is that it's ideologically more appealing to the right-wing elements in this country to create a nation of stupid people who are dumb enough to swallow their rhetoric so those right-wing elements can run an election campaign which is not based on facts and figures, but on bunting and sound bites that don't really tell you anything. You need a docile, stupid electorate in order for a person to be elected. And how do you keep them that way? You starve the educational system so that it doesn't really work. You control the content of the school books which are used in the educational system. You rewrite history to suit your ideology."

    -- Frank Zappa

  4. Cosmic Navel Lint18 March 2010 at 12:59

    Very fair points there, Ron. Apropos the obstructionism of the US Right, The New York Times did a piece on that only yesterday:<span></span><span> The NY Times discovers that GOP leader McConnell is an obstructionist</span>

    Here are the salient parts:

    WASHINGTON — Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.

    Republicans embraced it. Democrats denounced it as rank obstructionism. Either way, it has led the two parties, as much as any other factor, to where they are right now. Republicans are monolithically against the health care legislation, leaving the president and his party executing parliamentary back flips to get it passed, conservatives revived, liberals wondering what happened.

    In the process, Mr. McConnell, 68, a Kentuckian more at home plotting tactics in the cloakroom than writing legislation in a committee room or exhorting crowds on the campaign trail, has come to embody a kind of oppositional politics that critics say has left voters cynical about Washington, the Senate all but dysfunctional and the Republican Party without a positive agenda or message.

    As you can see, this leaves Obama very few options but to use the method of 'reconciliation' - a mechanism which as been used 21 times so far - 16 of which were by the Republicans, so it's hypocritical to whine about its use, merely on the grounds that they disagree with healthcare reform.

  5. Cosmic Navel Lint18 March 2010 at 14:14

    I think this quote, from Don McLeroy, illustrates just how risible the Texas Board of Education's position is now:

    "Now we don't have to burn books anymore," said Don McLeroy, who leads the Board of Education's ultra-conservative majority. "By simply rewriting American history, we can finally nip that ol' chore in the bud."


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