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Mar. 19 2010 - 5:30 am | 1,733 views | 1 recommendation | 10 comments

Texas whitewashing is latest stage of Textbook Wars

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It’s tempting to dismiss the recent whitewashing of history by the Texas Board of Education as a parochial problem. However, the board’s decisions to erase Thomas Jefferson, Cesar Chavez, the separation of Church and State (all while exalting the glories of Capitalism, The Heritage Foundation, and the Moral Majority) are more than poor judgments worthy of collective mockery. This kind of censorship and propaganda presents a grave danger to the public education system.

The Washington Monthly’s Mariah Blake wrote a fantastic profile on the Texas Board of Education that I highly recommend be read in its entirety.

Blake includes this fascinating interaction with Don McLeroy, a man who would probably be dismissed as a raving lunatic were in not for the fact that he sits on the Texas Board of Education, and is one of the leaders of an activist bloc that holds enormous sway over the body’s decisions.

Then McLeroy cracked the book open. The margins were littered with stars, exclamation points, and hundreds of yellow Post-its that were brimming with notes scrawled in a microscopic hand. With childlike glee, McLeroy flipped through the pages and explained what he saw as the gaping holes in Darwin’s theory. “I don’t care what the educational political lobby and their allies on the left say,” he declared at one point. “Evolution is hooey.” This bled into a rant about American history. “The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation,” McLeroy said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan – he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

You may need to read that more than once because there’s a lot of crazy to take in. I guess we need to thank McLeroy for lacking the usual filter/common sense that savvier zealots sometimes possess, which stops them from publicly linking their dogmatic beliefs to a severe hatred of public education and science.

Not good ole’ Don. He lets ‘er rip. It’s startling to see thirty years of a political philosophy’s devolution laid out in such stark terms, but there it is. Evolution is “hooey.” We are not a secular nation. We are a Christian nation. Ronald Reagan was the second coming. We’re still at war with Communists. Lower taxes. Add something about ugly feminists and the fags, slap that on a poster, and hand it to the teabaggers.

But Blake touches on another facet to the story that many observers have overlooked and/or failed to properly emphasize:

Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”

This used to be balanced with the liberal state of California’s influence on the textbook market. But thanks to the wise Republican leadership of that state (thanks privatization and The Free Market!) the economy has tanked. California has put off buying books until 2014.

That means McLeroy and Company have the textbook market cornered.

I have to pause here and give the Crazies some props. They really understand the importance of local politics (judicial elections, School Board elections, etc). They — far more than Progressives — know how to hustle at the local level and build momentum from the foundation-up. Who would have thought a school board in Texas could effectively set classroom curriculum for the nation? The Conservatives knew. They’ve been waging the Textbook Wars for 30 years.

And this 30-year-long war isn’t an argument between textbooks being “too liberal” or “too conservative.” The target of censorship always appears to be liberalism, art, and science, while the victor is always the conservative agenda. Here is Time’s list of “controversial” textbook content that became the target of the censors: the gay rights movement, global warming, evolution, the work of George Orwell, Arthur Miller, and Allen Ginsberg. Where are the conservative concessions? As usual, they’re missing. Liberalism bites the bullet in the name of one-sided bipartisanship..again.

Yet, the history of the Conservative infiltration of the Texas Board of Education is really inspiring in a weird way. Blake’s article illustrates the power of citizens who are disciplined, committed, and passionate about their ideologies. It’s just a reality that crazy people capitalized on the system instead of secularists.

I hear Progressives openly admiring Conservatives’ ability to organize, but there really isn’t a magic formula at work here. Conservatives simply showed up to school board meetings — a lot. And they loudly asked for crazy things (like the removal of techniques for breast self-examination from textbooks). This happened so often that publishers started to self-censor textbooks to avoid the inevitable Christianity-inspired headaches.

In 1984, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way analyzed new biology textbooks presented for adoption in Texas and found that, even before the school board weighed in, three made no mention of evolution. At least two of them were later adopted in other states. This was not unusual: while publishers occasionally produced Texas editions, in most cases changes made to accommodate the state appeared in textbooks around the country — a fact that remains true to this day.

Industry obeying the people? If only this worked for things other than censoring textbooks, say for the public option, or ending the wars. Of course, it’s easier for religious zealots to make political gains in this country. The anti-science crowd has always been extremely popular with Big Business, which is forever looking for ways to circumvent annoying environmentalists and regulation. And once the cash machine of Big Business got behind the religious crazies and anti-public education crowd, the secularists didn’t really stand a chance.

Conservatives swiftly adapted to the few, mild obstructions the state set up to stem their influence on textbook content. When the Texas legislature finally intervened in 1995, making the censoring of textbooks slightly more arduous, Conservatives decided to go directly to the source of action and infiltrate the school board. A decade later, after the 2006 election, Republicans claimed ten of fifteen board seats.

The work of national movements like MoveOn.org is extremely admirable, but oftentimes Progressives overlook the importance of these kinds of local victories. The latest Texas textbook scandal perfectly illustrates the danger in overlooking these battles.


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  1. collapse expand

    Isn’t there something Orwellian about censoring Orwell?

    In addition to not forgetting about local issues, the far right has been thinking in the long term whereas it often seems to me that the left can’t get past today’s fight.

  2. collapse expand

    The textbook wars have gone on longer than 30 years — the Fort Sumter of this battle was Charleston, W. Va., in 1974. I hate to link to Wikipedia, but it does summarize the actual war (there were bombs planted at school, shotguns blasted at school buses, etc.), but it summarizes things well and has links to the original reporting of the textbook wars:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanawha_County_textbook_controversy

    Eventually, the books that the fundamentalist Christians got banned came back, but it’s widely acknowledged that this was ground zero not only for the textbook wars of today (the Gablers of Texas were involved then as they were for years and years afterward), but that it was ground zero for the whole conservative muscle-flexing we still see today.

  3. collapse expand

    What did our Founding Fathers say:
    “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” Thomas Paine
    “Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” – Thomas Jefferson
    “Lighthouses are more helpful than Churches”, Benjamin Franklin

    I wonder what they would have to say about the Texas Board of Uneducation?

  4. collapse expand

    AK,

    I was doing a little research about controlling content in Texas class rooms and the history of Nazi classroom propaganda and found your short and on point piece. Thanks!

    No, I don’t think Texas will become a fascist state, but the control of education is one way the Nazis used, and Conservatives in Texas use, to control the ideological leanings of the populous. And it doesn’t matter that it is based on lies, falsehoods and omission.

    Peace,
    Tex Shelters

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