This month, there is a high-stakes battle playing out on the Texas State Board of Education, where a powerful ultraconservative faction is struggling to rewrite the standards for the state’s textbooks and infuse them with right-wing views. Among other things, the group aims to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy, downplay the contributions of the civil rights movement, bring global-warming denial into science class, and give history a pro-Republican slant. The implications reach far beyond the Lone Star State. In fact, thanks to the peculiar economics of textbook publishing, Texas has the power to shape the materials children read in classrooms nationwide.
That’s the teaser for an important Washington Monthly piece, The Revisionaries, on “the rabble rousers who are rewriting your kids’ textbooks.” Ironically, Texas leads the country in wind power with nearly 9000 MW (see “U.S. wind energy industry installed 1,649 MW in third quarter, more than Q2 and Q308“).
Here’s the key paragraphs from the WM piece on how our folks like creationist Don McLeroy — who “is one of the leaders of an activist bloc [on the Board] that holds enormous sway over the body’s decisions” — are dumbing down our kids’ textbooks and hence our kids:
A similar scenario played out during the battle over science standards, which reached a crescendo in early 2009. Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change exists, the group rammed through a last-minute amendment requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” This, in essence, mandates the teaching of climate-change denial. What’s more, they scrubbed the standards of any reference to the fact that the universe is roughly fourteen billion years old, because this timeline conflicts with biblical accounts of creation.
McLeroy and company had also hoped to require science textbooks to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, including evolution. Scientists see the phrase, which was first slipped into Texas curriculum standards in the 1980s, as a back door for bringing creationism into science class. But as soon as news broke that the board was considering reviving it, letters began pouring in from scientists around the country, and science professors began turning out en masse to school board hearings. During public testimony, one biologist arrived at the podium in a Victorian-era gown, complete with a flouncy pink bustle, to remind her audience that in the 1800s religious fundamentalists rejected the germ theory of disease; it has since gained near-universal acceptance. All this fuss made the bloc’s allies skittish, and when the matter finally went to the floor last March, it failed by a single vote.
But the struggle did not end there. McLeroy piped up and chided his fellow board members, saying, “Somebody’s gotta stand up to [these] experts!” He and his allies then turned around and put forward a string of amendments that had much the same effect as the “strengths and weaknesses” language. Among other things, they require students to evaluate various explanations for gaps in the fossil record and weigh whether natural selection alone can account for the complexity of cells. This mirrors the core arguments of the intelligent design movement: that life is too complex to be the result of unguided evolution, and that the fossil evidence for evolution between species is flimsy. The amendments passed by a wide margin, something McLeroy counts as a coup. “Whoo-eey!” he told me. “We won the Grand Slam, and the Super Bowl, and the World Cup! Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!” Scientists are not so enthusiastic. My last night in Texas, I met David Hillis, a MacArthur Award-winning evolutionary biologist who advised the board on the science standards, at a soul-food restaurant in Austin. “Clearly, some board members just wanted something they could point to so they could reject science books that don’t give a nod to creationism,” he said, stabbing his okra with a fork. “If they are able to use those standards to reject science textbooks, they have won and science has lost.”
We gotta stand up to experts and shout them down! But wait, isn’t McLeroy now an expert, sittin’ on a high-falutin’ Board of Education? Hmm. Maybe we should just shout everyone down all the time, then the Texas State Board of Education would be like a real middle school classroom — one that didn’t have any teachers or other “experts” supervising the kids, that is.