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What’s the Matter with Texas?

August 31st, 2010 - 2:07 pm

[This is Part II of a five-part essay; if you haven't yet seen it, first read Part I here.]

In 2004, liberal historian Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a bestselling book in which the author expresses his utter mystification at how the citizens of Kansas could hold conservative values and vote Republican, when socialist economics and the Democratic Party were so self-evidently superior. While the author looked down his nose at the inscrutable ignorant rubes of Kansas, insultingly treating them like laboratory rats unable to solve the simplest maze, the book and its popularity ended up being more of a commentary on the ideological blindness of the author and his left-leaning readers: try as they might, they just don’t get it. As the book revealed, it’s not that left-wingers disagree with conservative principles; they actually cannot grasp the notion of having any principles whatsoever.

When it comes to the left/right divide over education, the focal point now is not Kansas, but Texas. As discussed in Part I of this essay, Texas plays a pivotal role in determining the content of textbooks used nationwide. And yet, bucking the national trend toward a left-leaning educational system, Texas consistently has pushed the conservative viewpoint at its influential school board meetings — infuriating and, yes, mystifying their liberal detractors. And so the time has come to rephrase the question: What’s the Matter with Texas? Why do Texans insist on being conservative when their self-appointed intellectual superiors have tried every trick in the book — mockery, bullying, media bias, legislation — to change the culture of the Lone Star State?

Unlike Thomas Frank, I get it. I understand that American patriotism, far from being nothing more than the reactionary buzzword of small-minded bigots (as leftists believe), is based on a deep awareness that the United States of America is the first (and to date only) nation based on an idea, rather than on geography or ethnicity. And not just any idea, but the highest ideals which the human mind can formulate: freedom, responsibility, self-reliance, equality of opportunity, individualism. And that to be patriotic in America is a shorthand way to declare one’s allegiance to these philosophical ideals.

The left, in its blindness, equates patriotism with brute nationalism, in particular the ethnic and chauvinistic nationalism of Europe which has led to totalitarianism and countless wars. And so the leftists condemn American patriotism as equally fascistic, unaware that by doing so they are rejecting not just the ideals on which America is based but the very notion of a nation based on ideals.

The revelation: Texas is not trying to push conservatism — it’s trying to preserve patriotism. (And by “preserve patriotism” I mean steadfastly uphold the principles upon which America rests.) Texas’ educational attitude only appears as “conservatism” to analysts because patriotism has been abandoned by the left in favor of internationalism, so conservatives are the only ones willing to stand up for patriotism anymore. In fact, the modern left has been so mesmerized by fantasies of a globalist utopia that American “conservatism” and “patriotism” have been conflated to essentially mean the same thing.

So, against the backdrop of a left-dominated public school system in the U.S. in which patriotism is increasingly downplayed or undermined in favor of multiculturalism and internationalism, when the Texas school board stands firm for a patriotic curriculum, critics accuse them of “pushing conservative ideology.”

There’s one little problem: While for the most part the Texas State Board of Education is in fact admirably defending patriotism, they unfortunately drag some ideological baggage into the meeting room as well, and do here and there attempt to push conservative and/or Christian viewpoints into the curriculum. Maybe not as much as their critics charge, and they’re not always successful, but they try. And try. And try.

And it is this attempt on the part of the TSBE to overreach which frustrates me to no end. Because every time they push back too hard, they look just as partisan as the leftists they’re trying to counteract. Which gives the media and the liberal critics a valid basis on which to criticize Texas’ attempt (and thus any attempt) to salvage a patriotic curriculum.

Furthermore, the conservative board members of the TSBE have in a few cases gone too far and ended up distorting historical fact to match their own wishful thinking for a Christian nation. When you want to rectify your opponent’s twisting of the facts, it’s never good to overtwist them yourself in the opposite direction. It might work when negotiating the price of a used car, but in an argument about the nature of truth it only serves to undermine your position.

Illustration by Buzzsawmonkey

The TSBE’s Curriculum Recommendations

As discussed in Part I, this five-part essay is critical of both sides in the education debate. Parts III and IV will directly confront the dominant leftist agenda, and I’m not going to pull any punches. So don’t think I’m just here to bash conservatives or Christians. This second installment is specifically about the Texas State Board of Education, but it is not the entirety of my argument, so try not to get the mistaken impression that I’m being overly critical of conservatives and soft on liberals. Just think of it as tough love.

Earlier this year, the Texas State Board of Education met to revise its curriculum guidelines, which heavily influence the content of textbooks used across the country. Liberal pundits and the media just about had an aneurysm at some of the changes proposed by the board’s conservative majority.

The liberal-leaning Texas Freedom Network compiled a detailed list of what they characterized as the worst changes to the textbook curriculum approved by the TSBE.

If you want to fact-check this admittedly left-leaning list by referring to the source documents, you can see them here:

Line-by-line approved revisions to the Texas social studies curriculum [pdf document] (click to view as Web page; right-click to download as pdf).

Final approved curriculum, incorporating all new amendments.

Here are the lowlights of this year’s revisions according to the Texas Freedom Network, which pretty much comprehensively summarizes every single point which the liberal pundits and reporters found objectionable. As we shall see, I personally agree with some of the points made here, but the further we go down the list, the less the objections stand up to scrutiny:

Religious conservatives on the board killed a proposed standard that would have required high school government students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” That means the board rejected teaching students about the most fundamental constitutional protection for religious freedom in America. (3/11/10)

However, conservative news sources dispute this characterization. The Baptist Press, “news with a Christian perspective,” said:

[Opponents] wrote that the board’s “most egregious vote” was denying separation of religious and government institutions by rejecting a late amendment by Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight that students learn “the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.”

McLeroy said he believed Knight’s amendment would paint the founders as neutral toward religion generally.

“They weren’t,” McLeroy said. “They simply didn’t want a state church, a state religion. That’s it. To say that we were against protecting the religious freedoms of all the people, that is all spin from the Texas Freedom Network. That’s all it is. Because it’s not right.”

Lowe added: “The First Amendment very clearly prevents Congress from establishing a national church, but it also promotes the free exercise of religion. Students need to understand that this is what the founders intended. It is inaccurate to say the Founding Fathers were neutral about religion; most were strong proponents of religious faith but did not believe in a national church controlled by the federal government.”

Hmmmm. Now we’re getting into an argument about details which are very hard to summarize in a textbook. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on this issue several times in its history, but most of the landmark decisions tended to side with the secularist position that the First Amendment was more than about preventing a national church, but was generally about government not favoring or abetting religion in any way.

So it seems to me that the critics have a valid point here: The TSBE was promulgating as fact its wishful-thinking interpretation of the First Amendment, rather than the Supreme Court’s more “official” interpretation. Which, to me, is not kosher.

Moving on down the Texas Freedom Network’s list of liberal objections:

Even as board members continued to demand that students learn about “American exceptionalism,” they stripped Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from the 1700s to today. In Jefferson’s place, the board’s religious conservatives inserted Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. They also removed the reference to “Enlightenment ideas” from the standard, requiring that students simply learn about the “writings” of various thinkers (including Calvin and Aquinas). (3/11/10)

Again, the argument over this issue has devolved into minutiae. See the link above which shows exactly how the standards were amended:

explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present; …

While it may be true, as the TSBE’s defenders point out, that the liberal media exaggerated this excision (especially in various overstated headlines), and that Jefferson of course was retained in other parts of the curriculum, the fact remains that the board did delete Jefferson from the list of thinkers in what to me (and a lot of other people) looked like a petty jab at him for being the champion of the “separation of church and state” doctrine. It’s hard to shake off the notion that they tried to downgrade the doctrine by removing any discussion of its sponsor from the list. Which, as I colorfully noted in Part I, seems more like a partisan ploy than an even-handed presentation of facts.

Continuing with the objections:

The board’s right-wing faction removed a reference to propaganda as a factor in U.S. entry into World War I. (The role of propaganda on behalf of both the Allies and Central Powers in swaying public opinion in the United States is well-documented. Republican Pat Hardy noted that her fellow board members were “rewriting history” with that and similar changes.) (1/15/10)

Cross-checking this with the revisions in the source document, it’s an accurate statement that the TSBE removed references to propaganda playing a role in our entry into WWI. Which, as the liberal critics point out, is pretty much an uncontested historical fact. Why did the TSBE do this? Because teachers were using the WWI propaganda example to criticize the way the media helped whip up public opinion to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003? Whatever the motivation, expunging known facts, especially for possible political reasons (even ones I might happen to agree with) is egregious.

However, many in the MSM and on the left, including the Texas Freedom Network, predictably overplayed their hand in their condemnation of the TSBE’s recommendations by lumping in other changes by the board which upon closer inspection aren’t so outrageous after all. In many cases, the board had a valid point, or at least brought up an issue about which reasonable people could argue (but which up until now weren’t arguing because the liberal version of events had been ossified as historical fact). Here are some more entries from the TFN’s “List of Shame” which aren’t really that shameful. In fact, for most of them the only shameful part is the clumsy and ill-informed way the TSBE members bungled the defense of judgment calls which better debaters could have successfully championed:

Board conservatives succeeded in censoring the word “capitalism” in the standards, requiring that the term for that economic system be called “free enterprise” throughout all social studies courses. Board members such as Terri Leo and Ken Mercer charged that “capitalism” is a negative term used by “liberal professors in academia.”

The board changed a “imperialism” to “expansionism” in a U.S. history course standard about American acquisition of overseas territories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Board conservatives argued that what the United States did at the time was not the same as European imperialism.

Actually, the board has a valid point here: The very terms “capitalism” and “imperialism” have become standard-issue insults among anti-American academics. Because the language has been tainted and over-politicized, it is reasonable to try to revert to more neutral terms.

The board stripped Dolores Huerta, cofounder of United Farm Workers of America, from a Grade 3 list of “historical and contemporary figures who have exemplified good citizenship.” Conservative board members said Huerta is not a good role model for third-graders because she’s a socialist. But they did not remove Hellen Keller from the same standard even though Keller was a staunch socialist. Don McLeroy, a conservative board member who voted to remove Huerta, had earlier added W.E.B. DuBois so the Grade 2 standards. McLeroy apparently didn’t know that DuBois had joined the Communist Party in the year before he died. (1/14/10)

The liberal argument here flops utterly. Mocking McLeroy and the others for unwittingly allowing some socialists into the curriculum is not a logical argument for the need to therefore include all socialists. But mostly, Huerta’s socialism was the central tenet of her career and fame, whereas Helen Keller’s and W.E.B. Dubois’s late-career socialism were incidental to the reasons they were being praised as examples of “good citizenship.”

In an absurd attempt to excuse Joseph McCarthy’s outrageous witchhunts in the 1950s, far-right board members succeeded in adding a requirement that students learn about “communist infiltration in U.S. government” during the Cold War. (Board member Don McLeroy has even claimed outright that Joseph McCarthy has been “vindicated,” a contention not supported by mainstream scholarship.) (1/15/10)

This is still a hot-button issue, but it could be (and is) argued convincingly from both sides. McCarthy was a bully and a jerk; but then again, as the nation learned decades after the fact, on a purely factual basis he was mostly correct — communists and their sympathizers had infiltrated the government. Perhaps McCarthy’s tactics haven’t been vindicated, but his claims have.

The board’s right-wing faction removed references to “democratic” (or “representative democracy”) when discussing the U.S. form of government. The board’s majority Republicans changed those references to “constitutional republic.” Board member Cynthia Dunbar also won approval for changing references to “democratic societies” to “societies with representative government.” (3/11/10)

This is a bit of transparent partisan bickering on both sides, each wanting to use the lower-case version of their favored political party’s names (democratic/republican) to describe our form of government. The board’s argument, however, is just as valid as that of their opponents.

Religious conservatives stripped from the high school sociology course a standard having students “differentiate between sex and gender as social constructs and determine how gender and socialization interact.” Board member Barbara Cargill argued that the standard would lead students to learn about “transexuals, transvestites and who knows what else.” She told board members she had conducted a “Google search” to support her argument. Board member Ken Mercer complained that the amendment was about “sex.” The board consulted no sociologists during the debate. (3/11/10)

This is a perfect example of the board having a good point but being too anti-intellectual to cogently defend it. Perhaps in college we can’t stop students from being inundated with postmodern claptrap about “gender being a social construct,” but I for one think it’s a good idea to stop that mental infection from spreading downward into high school. But the board members’ cringeworthy justifications ruin what could have been a teachable moment.

Read the full list at the Texas Freedom Network link for more liberal objections to the curriculum changes, some of which are valid, some debatable, and some totally invalid. Overall, one gets the impression that the TSBE was trying to correct embedded liberal bias in the curriculum, but overreached in some areas and made themselves open to criticism as extremists or religious partisans, and further embarrassed themselves with various boorish and ill-informed justifications for what could otherwise have been defensible positions.

Evolution

Even though this year’s meetings did not focus on evolution, the topic still looms over the conversation and needs to be addressed, since in past years the TSBE did debate how evolution should be presented in class, and it still remains the most controversial part of their curriculum recommendations.

At the 2009 meetings, the board’s religious members argued for the inclusion of “intelligent design” in science textbooks, and for a critique of Darwinian natural selection. They were not entirely successful in their attempt, and the end result was an awkward compromise that left neither side happy. But the very fact that they tried to excise or at best downplay evolution in textbooks revealed their intent to impose their version of religious ideology on the science curriculum. And this very fact alone earned the TSBE the undying antipathy of almost the entire scientific establishment.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to rehash the entire 150-year-long debate over the reality and significance of evolution-through-natural-selection. And as a longtime veteran of the online evolution wars, I know that nothing I say will convince some people anyway. So I’m just going to lay out, as briefly as possible, my stance on the topic, and let readers, if they are so inclined, duke it out in the comments section:

  • The debate about the reality of evolution is over. Evolution happens, and it happens through natural selection. The evidence is beyond overwhelming and is conclusive.
  • If you quibble about the meaning of the word “theory” without knowing its definition in a scientific context, then you unintentionally have disqualified yourself from the conversation.
  • Intelligent design, creationism, or any other euphemism you care to use to describe “directed evolution,” are not scientific theories; they are religious beliefs, and as such have no place in a science class.
  • Denial of evolution is not a necessary adjunct of being Christian or having religious sentiments; it is entirely possible to be religious and to accept scientific realities like evolution, and many evolutionary scientists are also Christians.
  • “Darwinism” is not some sort of faith-based religion in its own right nor is it competing with Christianity, and anyone who claims so is either seriously misinformed or is purposely deceiving you.
  • The scientific community takes an extremely dim view of any official in a position of power who tries to undermine the teaching of evolution; this is a make-or-break “litmus test” issue for most scientists.
  • Therefore, the insistence by officials such as the Texas State Board of Education on tampering with evolution curriculum unnecessarily creates enemies out of many clear-thinking science educators who might otherwise applaud the TSBE’s pro-America and pro-factuality stance on other issues.

In other words: Even if you are an unwavering opponent of evolutionary theory, it is a terrible strategic blunder to insist that your view be taught in the public classroom as science, because doing so will deservedly earn you the enmity of millions of potential allies. This one issue is sufficient all on its own to mark its proponents (generally identified in America as “socially conservative Christians”) as overly partisan and unqualified to participate in discussions about school curriculum. And if you forfeit your position at the debate podium over this one sticking point, you will let the far left dominate the policymaking unopposed.

What Texas Is Up Against

As dejected as I am by the Texas State Board of Education’s amateurish and occasionally dishonest tamperings with the school curriculum, I realize that they’re operating in very hostile enemy territory. So, although, when seen in isolation, the TSBE’s agenda might make me cringe, when I look at the bigger picture, I start to cut them some slack.

For example, it was recently revealed that famed historian Howard Zinn was a communist — and not just a casual half-hearted communist, but a lifelong fierce and unapologetic advocate for Marxist-Leninist revolution, and a leading member of the Communist Party. Why should you care? Because Zinn was the author of the bestselling A People’s History of the United States, which is now considered a basic textbook in many school districts. As Roger Kimball noted,

The extremity and consistency of [A People’s History's] message — that America is and always has been an evil, exploitative country — guaranteed its success among the tenured radicals to whom we have entrusted the education of our children. More to the point, this history “from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated” nudged out all other contenders for the prize of becoming the preferred catechism in American — that is to say, anti-American — history. A People’s History is the textbook of choice in high schools and colleges across the country. No other account of our past comes even close in influence or ubiquity. No other, more responsible, telling of the American story had a chance. How could it? Given a choice between a book that portrayed America honestly — as an extraordinary success story — and a book that portrayed the history of America as a litany of depredations and failures, which do you suppose your average graduate of a teachers college, your average member of the National Education Association, would choose? To ask the question is to answer it. What this means is that most American students are battened on a story of their country in which Blame America First is a cardinal principle.

As bad as A People’s History is (and if you’ve never read it, the contents are worse than you can even imagine), it’s just the tip of the indoctrination iceberg. Zinn is not the point: He’s just the poster child for an across-the-board ideological coup d’etat by radical leftists who have already seized nearly complete control over the nation’s education curriculum, aside from the Texas-approved textbooks.

You don’t hear much about the curriculum these days because it’s a done deal. That fight is pretty much over, and (outside of Texas and a few southern states) the Left won. So there’s no need for Barack Obama to even mention the content of education in his proposals, because that aspect is already in the bag. Obama instead now focuses on funding for education, which may seem on the surface like a non-controversial issue. Yet if the funding is going to an educational system that is rife with political and philosophical indoctrination, then it doesn’t seem so non-controversial anymore.

And while it may be true that the radicalization of American schools of course long predates the arrival of Barack Obama on the national stage — absolving him of direct guilt in its implementation — he is quite obviously an enthusiastic supporter of the left-leaning curriculum currently in place, as evidenced by his earlier extensive career in academia where he championed leftist educational priorities.

Double Forfeit

It is against this backdrop that the Texas State Board of Education engages in its culture wars. Yes, the TSBE utterly contaminates its efforts with infuriating proposals to wipe away any mention of evolution and of the United States’ status as an explicitly secular nation. And for many people (including myself until recently), that’s enough to disqualify Texas from the debate.

But the more I read about the the even-more egregious left-wing indoctrination poisoning school districts nationwide, the more I feel that the other side is also disqualified from the debate.

Yet where does that leave us? A major dispute over the direction of our nation and no one remaining on stage to argue, both sides having been ejected for dishonesty?

As I said at the beginning of this essay, I wish that there was a sane alternative, a middle path, but at this moment no one wants to listen to people like me. And so, lacking any other competitors, I allow both the conservatives and the progressives back into my mental arena and admonish them, “Listen, you two: Neither of you deserve to be here, and you’re unworthy of my consideration. But unfortunately you’re the only alternatives we’ve got. So, since neither of you wants to compromise, I’ve got to decide which of your positions I find the least offensive.”

What Else Is On the Tray?

Since I hate each side’s main course, I have to look to see what else they have on their trays.

Aside from identity politics, historical falsehoods, ridiculous multiculturalism, communist propaganda, and relentless indoctrination, what else does the Left have to offer in its educational policy? Well, as we saw above encapsulated in A People’s History of the United States, the overall intent of the left-wing curriculum is to foster a hatred of America and American values and traditions. At every turn the U.S. is portrayed throughout its history as a genocidal, mean-spirited, racist, oppressive, fascist police state. Everything bad throughout our history is emphasized and blown out of proportion. Everything good is ignored or misconstrued beyond recognition. The anti-Americanism is subtle in elementary grades, and escalates in middle school and high school, and becomes full-blown by college.

On the other hand…

Aside from denying some fundamental scientific truths, ignoring aspects of history they find inconvenient, distorting certain amendments of the Constitution, and trying to get religion back into schools, what does the Texas State Board of Education and its allies have to offer in its educational policy? A love for America, its values and traditions (at least to the extent that those traditions aren’t expressly anti-religious). America, in the conservative curriculum, is glorified as the greatest nation in history, the source of democracy and freedom, the savior of the world.

It all comes down to a matter of intent. WHY does each side mutilate the truth? To what end?

In the case of the left, the ultimate goal is to overthrow the United States as we know it.

In the case of the right, the ultimate goal is to preserve and strengthen the United States.

What choice do I have, therefore, but to support the conservative side as the lesser of two evils?


 

Next: Part III — Indoctrination Nation.


 

Part I: Ideological War Spells Doom for America’s Schoolkids
Part II: What’s the Matter with Texas?
Part III: Indoctrination Nation
Part IV: In Pursuit of Cultural Hegemony
Part V: Proposals for an Educational Renaissance

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