January 21, 2010

The Ministry of Truth Is Located in Texas

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 3:38 pm

A little more than a decade ago, my family and I were heavily involved in the local public school system in one county in Mississippi. The school district was monumentally corrupt in many ways, from the fact that one could place a majority of the teachers in one school on the same three family trees, to the blatant insertion of political agendas into class lectures, to the county superintendent of education’s inclination toward vicious revenge and abuse of power. We fought many well-intentioned but extremely bad ideas that probably actually originated in the bowels of a state-level office. Of course, every now and then something would crop up to which we could not even give the benefit of a doubt. One example that immediately springs to mind is that the district handbook allowed administrators to let certain students take foreign language in the eighth grade “at their discretion,” but because my family and I had already tied up with the school district, my school principal vindictively abused this “discretion” and refused to let me, the top student in my grade and recently coming out of Washington, DC as a National Spelling Bee finalist, into the class.

We were active in the process. We took our grievances first to the administrators, then to the school board. We helped manage a campaign to unseat the superintendent of education, which failed. We wrote letters to the local newspaper, including one that I wrote as a freshman about ridiculous “security” policies instituted in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. By all measures, we did the activism part right.

However, we were up against a strongly apathetic populace and a small group of people who were very committed to their agenda, and that agenda was not just ill-conceived educational policy. Over the course of my high school education, I was informed in a history class that, in the teacher’s opinion, “Nixon was innocent in Watergate and the Democrats just set it all up because that’s the kind of thing they would do.” This was after the Nixon tapes had begun to trickle out. In a social studies class, I was told that a single president could undermine years of legal precedent by changing the Supreme Court makeup “like the current president (Clinton) has done.” Never mind that Roe v. Wade, the case that was almost certainly on this teacher’s mind, had been settled law for 25 years. I was “taught” evolution in one of my science classes by being told to outline the chapter as a single night’s homework assignment. I don’t recall learning anything in school about the Big Bang, though in private reading I had long moved on to articles about the theorized heat death of the universe.

Our efforts to fix that particular school district ended in complete, total failure, and my three sisters and I all withdrew from school long before graduation. I went to college after 10th grade courtesy of my ACT score. (I should add that the school also had “discretion” in whether to let me go, which they wanted very much to abuse once again, and during that final meeting, I am convinced I was only signed off to leave after I made it clear that I’d just take the GED route if they didn’t let me go of their own accord.) My three younger sisters were home-schooled for the rest of their pre-college days.

We were burned on the public school system, but going cold turkey on a social activist cause is extremely difficult if it’s one that you have worked on for years. For several years after getting out of the system, we peripherally followed events, but with a sense of hopelessness and despair for those who did not have the choice of leaving as we did. We took care of our own and that’s all anyone can do anymore—that was how I thought, at least. In the information age, those kids would eventually be exposed to the true version of science and history rather than a version consisting of anti-science, blatant partisanship, and feel-good revisionism. Whether they chose to accept it would be up to them. With any luck, some of them would discover these ideas and logic would have a chance of winning out.

It turned out that it wasn’t as simple as that. Upon entering college, I learned that the anti-science and revisionist sides had extremely well-funded institutions backing them, and their views were not merely confined to the cliched village idiots. They were, and are, so successful at pushing propaganda that they have succeeded in muddying the waters in the United States and deceiving perfectly intelligent people. They have done this in part by taking over school boards of public school districts and pushing rote memorization—whether of standardized test material, Biblically-based “theories,” or a smiley face version of U.S. history that is not to be questioned unless the questioner wants to be accused of hating America—over critical thinking skills.

This is especially evident in science. Something like half of the U.S. population rejects evolution, and the media will often present evolution as a controversial topic. But at the same time, there was NO controversy about the fact that the H1N1 virus could mutate and that the hypothetical mutated version could outperform its predecessor—in other words, that the virus could have evolved. There is no question whatsoever that human beings have artificially selected for specific traits in domestic and agricultural animals. Yet there is a substantial group who will absolutely refuse to believe that selection can happen in nature at a multicellular level and that it can change species, especially the human species. On another scientific topic, I distinctly recall getting into arguments in secondary school about the Big Bang. My peers thought it was a choice; either I believed in God or I “believed in” the Big Bang. My natural response, “I don’t understand… why couldn’t that have been the method that God used to create the universe?”, was met with total lack of comprehension. It was as if that had absolutely never occurred to them. And since I now have a basic understanding of abstractions such as superstring theory, it makes me wonder how much of a heretic they would now consider me to be. In fact, reading about Theories of Everything has just given me a greater appreciation for the beauty of the universe and reinforced my belief that this beauty isn’t accidental. I’m not suggesting that everyone who accepts science must be theistic. However, those people who truly think that it is a choice between science and faith have lost, shelved, or never developed their capacity for critical thinking.

With history, the problem is not so much an inability to think critically as it is an inability to think objectively. The right-wing revisionists proclaim that “liberal historians” want students to grow up hating America and feeling ashamed of their heritage. However, if there are stains in the fabric of a country’s history, those shouldn’t inspire pride. Such stains are a part of our past, and it is inappropriate and arguably dangerous to pretend that they didn’t happen. History isn’t meant to be a pep talk. And incidentally, there is little evidence to suggest that people who learn an objective version of American history come to hate America as a result. We’re Homo sapiens. We’re members of a species for which group/tribal identity is, and always has been, very important. Every nationality in the world takes pride in itself, and I see no reason to believe that America would be any different. Knowing about the bad parts might just inspire people to want to prevent such things from happening again.

For the right-wing scientific and historical revisionists, the driving force behind their actions seems to be fear—fear that people might come to different conclusions than they themselves have. To avoid this, these people have stepped up their assault on education. They are not just taking over school boards at a local level; that has been a whopping success. Now the particularly empowered school boards have bullied textbook publishers into forcing their version of history, science, and English upon all American children in public schools.

How, might you ask, have a few political ideologues on school boards managed to persuade private companies to change their product? (And doesn’t the idea of government entities pressuring business to change their product sound like the diametric opposite of “conservatism”? These folks’ hypocrisy truly knows no bounds.) Well, it has to do with the market reach of specific states. Texas and California have been the two biggest markets for schoolbooks, and so the requirements of each state’s Board of Education have had a disproportionate impact on the material that goes into textbooks. A state reserves the right to reject books that do not meet its criteria. California, with its catastrophic budgetary problems and massive education cuts, is not going to be purchasing new textbooks for several years. This gives Texas’s Board of Education virtually unilateral power to determine what material is put into school textbooks.

The Texas Board of Education has been taken over by people with an agenda, and it is not even a subtle one. An excellent article in the Washington Monthly describes in great detail what these people have in store for American schoolkids. Here are some of the priorities of Don McLeroy, a right-wing creationist on the Texas Board of Education:

  • Propose the likes of Concerned Women for America (Phyllis Schlafly), Contract With America (Newt Gingrich ’94), and the Moral Majority as conservative counterweights to the New Deal and the Great Society.
  • Defend Joseph McCarthy and the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
  • Teach in science classes that there are substantial flaws to evolution and that the scientific community does not agree that the theory of natural selection occurs in nature (this is completely false, incidentally).
  • Teach deniers’ arguments about man-made climate disruption (my chosen term for global warming).
  • Remove references to a planet that is four billion-plus years old and a universe that is fourteen billion years old. This entails denying biology, paleontology, geology, astrophysics, cosmology, and probably more disciplines, and embracing a thoroughly discredited creationist view that minor flaws in carbon dating open the possibility of a planet that is 0.00015 percent of the age that it is believed to be.

Something tells me that Big Bang theory is high heresy to this guy and he probably doesn’t even know that superstring theory and loop quantum gravity theory exist.

Some of McLeroy’s colleagues and associates are even worse. Another board member, David Barton, is a former executive of the Texas Republican Party. His “qualifications” for office include a degree from Oral Roberts University. These two pieces of his background should give you a good guess about what his educational priority is, and it would be correct. Barton ignores the Native American democracies and ancient Greece, the actual models for our government, and the Enlightenment, the period in which the first official United States documents were actually written. He ignores the fact that the period in which religion was unconstitutionally intersected with government was the Great Revival (or Great Awakening) of the early 1800s and the Victorian era rather than the time of the Founders. Instead he plays up the much uglier Puritan heritage of early America and the theocracies of most of the colonies in the 1600s, proclaiming them to be the real sources of inspiration for our form of government.

I’ve mentioned that these people prefer brainwashing and rote memorization over critical thinking. Apparently there is a very good reason for it. There is not a lot that I can add to a quote like this (emphasis mine):

In late 2007, the English language arts writing teams, made up mostly of teachers and curriculum planners, turned in the drafts they had been laboring over for more than two years. The ultraconservatives argued that they were too light on basics like grammar and too heavy on reading comprehension and critical thinking. “This critical-thinking stuff is gobbledygook,” grumbled David Bradley, an insurance salesman with no college degree, who often acts as the faction’s enforcer.

If a comment like that does not send chills down the spine of any parent or teacher, I would question that person’s commitment to education.

It is a legitimate concern that many people lack a basic understanding of English grammar. I’ve seen far too many essays that are virtually unreadable. However, leaving aside the fact that there is no reason for it to be an either/or choice between grammar and reading, grammar is part and parcel of reading comprehension, whereas the reverse is not necessarily true. One can write perfectly grammatical sentences that say nothing when taken together. On the flip side, learning how to determine meaning from well-structured paragraphs tends to structure one’s own thinking, and having examples of good writing is invaluable toward improving one’s own. Anyone who ever studied a foreign language can attest to the value of learning by experience. It says a lot that critical thinking and reading comprehension are alien to this person—who has been in the position of determining curricula for schoolchildren.

At the moment, it looks very much as if these people in the Ministry of Truth in Texas are going to get most of what they want, because right-wing ideologues are notoriously impervious to the appeals from “liberals.” My old attitude from 2000 seems to apply quite aptly to this situation: “We took care of our own and that’s all anyone can do anymore.” However, it isn’t strictly correct. In my preceding blog post, I said that sometimes there are situations that we can do nothing about. In this one, I can do a little something. I can inform. There must be plenty of objective-minded parents and teachers out there who are unaware of what is happening in Texas and would learn about it only upon first opening the teacher’s edition or looking at what a child brought home.

For me, having open-minded parents who accumulated a lot of reading material was the difference between knowledge and ignorance. There is no doubt in my mind that without this material available for me to read, I would have been at a disadvantage when I went to college. This is a situation where those who are concerned with education and concerned with the truth need to know about what’s going to happen so that they can decide how to respond. I would advise home-schooling if the parents’ finances permit it, early admission to college or junior college, or as a last resort, lots of supplemental reading for the kids. If there is any hope in a particular district, I’d also advise interested persons to run for the school board against ideologues who are there on behalf of an American cultural jihad (oh yes, I went there). The school system cannot be allowed to remain in their hands indefinitely. Whether people like these individuals in Texas want to acknowledge it or not, their version of history and science is not the correct one, it is not the one accepted by the developed world, and if they are allowed to deprive American children of real information, America will continue to fall behind.

5 Comments »

  1. I am just thankful we had the freedom to homeschool. It seems as IF more and more people in the educational community are trying to criminalize or regulate homeschooling. And one of the frequent criticisms I hear is why didn’t you work to make your public school better if you didn’t like something about it. You answered that questioned nicely. We too tried to change things and discovered the entrenched school board had no intention of listening to parents about anything.

    Comment by Alasandra — January 21, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

  2. I thought you might find these two articles interesting
    http://works.bepress.com/kimberly_yuracko/1/

    and

    The Harms of Homeschooling page 7 http://www.puaf.umd.edu/files.php/ippp/vol29summerfall09.pdf

    Comment by Alasandra — January 21, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

  3. Those papers are disturbing. It DOES trouble me that homeschooling has become associated with the Religious Right, when there is a growing community of parents who do it instead because the schools that are available to them are not suited to their children or are not up to par in what they teach. Considering how much the Religious Right has taken over public school curricula in the Southeast, to the point of teachers being able to proselytize and electioneer in classrooms without being called on it, I don’t really understand what the Religious Right people want to keep their kids away from in this part of the country! But even though “those people” seem to be the public face of homeschooling, I am very troubled by the prospect of regulating homeschooling. Suppose that we end up with somebody like Palin in the White House someday. I am sure that “her people” would use any such homeschooling regulations AGAINST parents who wanted their kids out of school because the schools were too religious. “Would you want your adversaries to have this power?” is generally a good question to ask when contemplating regulations.

    Oh, and the argument that homeschooled kids aren’t properly socialized quite frankly ticks me off. A great many kids have 13 years of utter misery as their great “socialization experience.” There is a reason why more kids these days are choosing suicide to escape from bullies. And then there are the children who, like me, are basically introverted but definitely able to develop deep bonds with people when we have a certain connection. The “socialization experience” of traditional school is highly overrated at best, probably a net negative for children in general, and devastating at worst.

    Comment by PolitiCalypso — January 22, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  4. my kids are home schooled and they are always performing well in class during their High School years”`’

    Comment by Metallic Sandals : — October 23, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  5. i was home schooled when i was still very young and i have to stay that it is also a great way to educate your kids “,:

    Comment by Nicotine — December 16, 2010 @ 4:37 am

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