Descending Again into Darkness: An Extraordinary Revolution of Willful Ignorance

The Texas State Board of Education is pushing a fundamentalist agenda. The religious right in Texas is so powerful that publishers are willing to accept conservative editorial changes no matter how absurd.
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While voters focus their attention on Scott Brown's upset win in Massachusetts, and Washington implodes on health care reform, and Ben Bernanke fights for his political life, a subterranean monster like a creature from Dune slithers below undetected, crawling with ominous stealth underneath national consciousness, working to erode the very foundation of our democracy. In this real-life sci-fi nightmare the grotesque creature is the Texas State Board of Education pushing a fundamentalist agenda, intent on chomping us back to the Stone Age.

The national media have almost completely ignored the relentless assault on reason that just keeps on coming from Texas conservatives, the Energizer Bunnies of Ultraconservatism. National Public Radio tried in 2002 to expose the truth in a report by John Burnett, but few listened to his subtle plea for sanity.

Texas, California and Florida are the 600 pound gorillas of textbook purchasing, so what they do influences the entire country. But even among those three, Texas stands out.

The size of the Texas book market means that what is selected there will likely wind up in your schools, no matter where you live. In earlier times California's more liberal leanings acted as a counterbalance to Texas, but with the Sunshine State in near-bankruptcy the balance of power has shifted dramatically. California is not even buying new books until 2014, giving the right wing extreme fringe unprecedented influence on our school children, right now.

Publishers print to meet the demands of the largest market, so Texas rules in the absence of any opposing market forces. Publishers shamelessly "self-censure" to gain favor with the 10 conservative Republican members of the 15 member Texas Board. To get a sense of where those Republicans stand, among the more moderate is Cynthia Noland Dunbar who notes that sending our children to public schools is like "throwing them into enemy flames." She claims Obama is a terrorist.

The religious right in Texas is currently so powerful that publishers are willing to accept conservative editorial changes no matter how absurd. In one proposed high-school economics text, publishers altered a photograph of the entrance to the New York Stock Exchange because the marble tableau above the entrance includes the sculpted representational figures of "agriculture" and "science" in the buff. The publisher doctored the picture by placing loin cloths over the exposed genitals to protect easily shocked conservative eyes from witnessing the human body.

When the Texas Senate passed legislation to restrict the disproportionate influence of the School Board on textbook selection, conservative groups simply bypassed the public review process and now communicate directly with publishers. The hyper-conservative Eagle Forum and Citizens for a Sound Economy (now Freedomworks) send out an army of reviewers who comb through every proposed text generating thousands of pages of editorial "suggestions" to oppose "ideological bias." Such bias means for example that any reference to global warming is labeled "anti-Christian" and anti-free enterprise."

Like their counterparts in Iran, the thought police here wish to rewrite history to fit a preconceived idea of what the past should be. So the folks in Texas seek to exclude any reference to Cesar Chavez from social studies. Gail Lowe, current Board Chair and a vocal creationist, justifies this exclusion with the logic that Chavez "lacks stature" and "should not be help up to our children as someone worthy of emulation." But the Board does not stop there; they also seek to remove from textbooks any reference to Irma Rangel, the first Hispanic woman elected to the state Legislature.

Thurgood Marshall is also up for deletion. Texas Gov. Rick Perry supports Lowe's position and logic. In place of reference to these figures from history, the Board instead has been urged to add verbiage to reveal "the motivational role of the Bible and the Christian faith played in the settling of the original colonies."

Once we step onto this slippery slope of censorship and ignorance the slide is difficult to stop. Reason becomes a distant dream as the Board pushes ever harder to teach Creationism, ban the teaching of evolution, promote abstinence-only sex education, and minimize the importance of the civil rights movement. In the textbooks your kids will be reading.

In May 2009 the Board adopted sadly watered down language on evolution that gives equivalency to Darwin's theory and Intelligent Design as "two sides" of the story to be evaluated with equal weight. That is because "evolution is hooey" according to Board member Don McLeroy. This is the same Board member who proudly noted that he evaluates textbooks by determining "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." This would explain another of his agenda items: to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy.

These editorial changes are real. This is what your kids will be taught. This is only the beginning. The New Deal was removed from a timeline of significant historical events, because Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts were socialistic. Reagan's invasion of Granada in 1983 was described instead as a "rescue." Reagan himself is lauded only in terms of his "role in restoring national confidence, such as Reagonomics and Peace with Strength." No mention of Iran-Contra. Nixon is noted only for his "role in normalizing relations with China and the policy of détente." Watergate never happened. Illustrations to teach woman how to do self-breast exams were removed. A picture of a business woman holding a briefcase was pulled and replaced with a mother baking a cake.

McLeroy infiltrated as well the Texas Education Agency, created as part of the reform legislation designed to offset the growing power of the School Board. What was formed to act as a counterweight to extremism is now a co-conspirator. McLeroy pulled off this political sleight of hand by adding Bill Ames to the Agency teams reviewing books grade by grade. Ames rails against illegal immigrants who infest America with disease, as one might expect from a Minuteman militia member. Amazingly, Ames successfully inserted language into the review standards that required textbooks to laud conservative heroes "such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority." At the same time other team members were falsely accused of removing reference to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. These falsehoods generated a public fury (on the assumption the accusations were true), so the Board halted the team reviews, which were replaced conveniently by "experts" of the Board's choosing.

One of those experts is Peter Marshall, who argues that god is punishing gays as witnessed by California's wildfires and Hurricane Katrina. Marshall wants to restore America "to its Bible-based foundation." Mr. McLeroy follows suit by insisting that "...we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles." The fact that our country is founded on secular ideals is just a minor inconvenience for these folks (

Complementing Marshall's expertise is David Barton, former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. That might seem mainstream enough until you hear Barton's testimony before the Board which selected him. Barton enthusiastically supported McLeroy and Marshall in claiming our theocratic origins, but that was just a warm up. His stated goal is to cleanse our history of embarrassment. So slavery becomes a problem of British colonialism that Americans fought to end from the very inception of the country. He wants all reference to our form of government to be changed from "democratic" to "republican." He claims that Martin Luther King had little to do with advancing minority rights. Instead, those rights were conferred upon blacks by the white majority.

Callous disregard for the truth and easy substitution of faith for fact characterize the right's approach to education. The people who have perhaps the most influence on the education of our children across the country believe the earth is 10,000 years old. Those in charge of education materials believe the world was created in six days. That does not bode well for biology and geography classes. Bigotry, misogyny, racism and revisionist history are not good foundations for education.

Make no mistake. This is war, and we are fighting for the soul of our nation. McLeroy, Lowe, Marshall, Dunbar, Barton and their ultraconservative faction are not distant enemies. They are in your home. They are in your kid's head. They are influencing your sons and daughters every day, and impacting their futures. They are kidnapping our Constitution. They are striving to create a theocracy. They are imposing faith over fact with an ease that would make the Mullahs of Iran blush with pride. They are dragging us back into another Dark Ages just as the rest of the world is embracing the knowledge and new technologies of the 21st century. They are a pathological infection of our body politic, consuming us from within.

The conservative Christian right on the Texas School Board is making a mockery of everything our country stands for, turning on its head all that our founders believed. If knowledge is power, fundamentalists are hell bent on turning this country into a third-rate banana republic. Their small minority is having a hugely disproportionate impact across this great land, and if we are to survive as a nation they must be stopped. For as long as the right prevails, our students, and our future, will be severely handicapped. In a modern global economy, nobody is going to hire a job candidate who has graduated with the knowledge of a 17th century Quaker.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation rightly focuses on education in the United States, a proper emphasis if we wish to fight this scourge of reactionary extremism. The foundation's laudatory goal is to make sure "high school students graduate ready for success and prepared to earn postsecondary degrees." That worthy objective will be impossible to achieve, however, as long as the Christian right maintains a stranglehold on the materials being taught.

Gates should therefore refocus his energies. His foundation would have a much bigger and more immediate impact by helping to support a nationally-coordinate effort to promote the local campaigns of rational, reasonable candidates for school boards across the country. Yes, this national problem must be solved at the level of the most local of politics, but such efforts must have the benefits of a strategy best seen from a high perch. In favor of that effort is the fact that just a few school boards have the most national influence, making their conservative members an initial juicy strategic target. The goal of reinstituting sanity in our schools is achievable.

Conservatives have hijacked our educational system for too long. The time has come to reclaim our heritage, and move past this dark era of willful ignorance. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." In 1816 he said, "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day..." We can and must recapture that quiet respect for the power of knowledge.

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