America’s culture wars are sustained in no small part by the narrative power of outrage. The Revisionaries, a 2012 documentary released last week on VOD, deftly capitalizes on that fact. Focusing on the revisions to the Texas state K-12 textbook standards pushed through by right-wing members of the 15-member elected Texas State Board of Education, the film is both riveting and infuriating.
Don McLeroy, a dentist who was elected by voters in his local district and then appointed to be chairman of the board by Governor Rick Perry, is the leader of the radical right members. He's also a young-earth creationist who believes that there was enough room on the ark for all the dinosaurs — at the end of the film he's walking off the cubits for his Sunday school class to show them how all the creatures would fit. For the science standards, he and his allies include language questioning evolution. In social studies, they try to downplay deist Thomas Jefferson's role in influencing American government in favor of Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, cut out references to women and minorities, and glorify the sainted Ronald Reagan.
Texas state standards are hugely important; essentially they determine which textbooks can be used throughout the state. Texas is a massive market, with 4.8 million students. Moreover, that market is strongly centralized. Only approved textbooks can be purchased with state funds. If schools want to use other books, they need to pay for them themselves. One textbook representative interviewed in the film notes that, as a result, if a publisher gets a book on the approved list it can often make back its costs through Texas sales alone. As a result, publishers are desperate to get in the Texas market, and try their best to massage their texts to meet state standards, no matter how loopy. These Texas-tailored texts then are sold to school districts throughout the U.S. Thus, McLeroy's conviction that the earth is 6,000 years old and that Reagan was a genius have had a fairly direct effect on the education of public school students throughout the country.
Still, in some ways I think McLeroy is too easy a target. Watching The Revisionaries, you get the sense that it's the religious right that is ruining public education in this country. It’s easy to get the impression that the most pressing problems the U.S. faces in secondary education are from folks like former Texas Education Board member Cynthia Dunbar, who rather incredibly admits to the documentary crew that she doesn't believe that the school system should be secular. If Texans would just vote out these yahoos, the U.S. would have good standards and good textbooks, and public schools could be places of learning rather than of indoctrination by Constantinian Christian bullies. From this perspective, McLeroy's defeat by a moderate in a close election is a triumph — a hopeful happy ending to the documentary.
McLeroy's defeat was a good thing for Texas, and for schools more generally. But unfortunately, I think its beneficial effects are limited. That's because the Texas Board of Education battles are a symptom, rather than a cause, of larger problems. For example, as someone who has worked writing educational materials for K-12 students for two decades, I can tell you with some authority that idiotic, anti-intellectual regulation of content is not restricted to the far right. On the contrary, for me, working on textbooks and exams, the major difficulty is not catering to the far right. It's catering to a nebulous, ill-defined fear of offending anyone. Obviously, when freelance writing or finding test passages for kids of whatever age, I know my work will be rejected if I mention evolution. But I'm also not allowed to mention snakes, or violent storms, or cancer, or racial discrimination, or magic. Authority figures, including teachers and Woodrow Wilson, can never be questioned. Pop culture can't be mentioned. Living people can't be mentioned. Death can't be mentioned. As Diane Ravitch said in her still-relevant 2004 book The Language Police, there is "an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government." Or, to put it another way, the people in charge have apparently agreed that the ideal educational content is a bland, colorless paste.
On a somewhat different, but I believe related, tack, the school problems in thoroughly Democratic Chicago, where I live, have little to do with far-right interference. Rather, they have to do with the fact that the city's mayors, first Richard Daley and now Rahm Emanuel, have long treated the schools like political footballs. At the end of last year, for example, the mayor announced he was closing dozens of schools on the south and west sides in order to balance the budget, despite pleas from local communities and despite the fact that no one was able to say for sure that the closings would actually save any money. The school closings, though, were really just the latest in a long line of school decisions which seem aimed less at helping students than at pleasing land developers, or freeing up money for projects the mayors really care about. The recent late-night demolition of a beloved fieldhouse at Whittier Elementary School seems to sum up the relationship, whereby the bureaucracy destroys the schools in the name of some nebulous good, and the teachers and students are left to stare dispiritedly at a pile of rubble.
Again, the common thread between the Texas and Chicago education systems isn't creationist culture warriors. Rather, it's sheer arbitrariness. McLeroy, textbook publishers afraid of snakes, and Rahm Emanuel don't share many opinions in common. But the one thing they agree on, it seems like, is that education must be subjected to all-encompassing bureaucratic control. As Jal Mehta has said in his recent book The Allure of Order, reform efforts for over a century have consistently focused on removing power from teachers and putting them in the hands of somebody — anybody — else.
The most hopeful moment in The Revisionaries is a sequence in which Stephanie Klenzendorf, a high school teacher, explains evolution to her class, intelligently fielding questions about heredity, common ancestry, and faith. You watch it and you think, “Just let her teach.” But the ideologues on the Texas Board of Education don't want to let her — and neither does anybody else. Yes, the Texas Board of Education is an embarrassment. But that's just an outgrowth of the fact that U.S. education policy in general is often an embarrassment. If we want education to improve, we don't need smarter, more politically moderate micromanagers. We need to get rid of the micromanagers altogether.
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