The most dangerous people in the world

May 23, 2010

Imagine, if you will, that here in the UK we had a system of deciding school curricula at the county level rather than with the National Curriculum that we have at present. Different counties do things differently but one of them, let’s say North Yorkshire, does it by having an organisation, the County Board of Education, look at the syllabus for each subject on a 10-yearly cycle.

Last year, it was the turn of the science standards. The chairman of the board at the time was an avowed creationist, and fought extremely hard against the teaching of evolution and tried to allow for creationist theories to be taught as well. Some of his more explicit attacks were voted down, but (with the help of like-minded board members), some concessions were made and the teaching of evolution was watered down in the revised syllabus.

This year, it is the turn of social studies curriculum. The 15 member board have voted through a syllabus that involves teaching children the significance of Margaret Thacher,  why low taxes are important for economic progress,  the importance of organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and why the UN could be a threat to personal freedom.

North Yorkshire is a significant player in the textbook purchasing market – they are a big county and they buy a lot of books. So, in order to sell textbooks in North Yorkshire, publishers obligingly re-write their textbooks to conform to the new standards. Other counties do not have such an impact, and will simply buy whatever books are published. Therefore they will now be buying textbooks which conform to the ideological beliefs of the North Yorkshire.

All of the above is, of course, fiction. But it mirrors quite closely the reality in America where the Texas State Board of Education has been engaged in a project of revising the Texas-wide curricula along purely ideological lines for the past couple of years. And, since Texas has a large amount of buying power in the textbook market, what Texas decides may come down on other states too (though California may take a stand against it)

Don McLeroy is the creationist who led the opposition to evolution in the science standards. You can watch him in action here recycling standard creationist talking points and giving us his most notorious quote “I disagree with these experts. Somebody’s got to stand up to experts.” This man was in charge of the committee, deciding what should be taught as science to Texas children (and, depending on whether the fears about the effect of Texas’ influence on the textbook market are well-founded, in  other states too). Although he didn’t get his own way entirely, the final recommendation nonetheless contained coded language giving ammunition to creationists.

This time round, it is a lawyer called Cynthia Dunbar who has been prominent in trying to rewrite the standards to conform to right-wing ideological preconceptions. Her opening prayer gives a fairly clear indication of her stance – she believes America to be a “Christian land governed by Christian principles”. She has described public schools (American ones i.e. the equivalent of UK state schools) as “tools of perversion,” “tyrannical” and “unconstitutional”. And, like McLeroy, she is deciding what should be taught in them.

The Dallas Morning News reports on the outcome:

Approval came after the GOP-dominated board approved a new curriculum standard that would encourage high school students to question the legal doctrine of church-state separation – a sore point for social conservative groups who disagree with court decisions that have affirmed the doctrine, including the ban on school-sponsored prayer.


Board members also gave a thumbs down to requiring history teachers and textbooks to provide coverage on the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy while the late President Ronald Reagan was elevated to more prominent coverage in the curriculum. In addition, the requirements place Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a more positive light in U.S. history despite the view of most historians who condemn the late Republican senator’s tactics and his view that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Communists in the 1950s.

For me, two quotes get to the heart of what all of this is about, and is why I believe one could reasonably describe McLeroy, Dunbar and the rest of the Republican members of the Texas State Board of Education as the most dangerous people in the world.

What we are seeing is the opening move in a long game, designed to have consequences far in the future. This is not about immediately repealing Roe v. Wade, or explicitly allowing / mandating the teaching of creationism in US schools, or any of the usual religious right issues. Sure, these things come up from time to time and get slapped down by the courts as they should be (though I’ve seen it argued that secretly some religious thinkers wouldn’t want Roe v. Wade overturned because it gives them a good issue to proselytize around). They know that these arguments aren’t going to be won now, but they have realised that if they can cause a big enough shift in peoples’ understanding and knowledge of history, they will become winnable eventually.

Rather ironically (for a political movement which likes to paint the Democrats as totalitarians) they understand the truth of Orwell’s observation that “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” They want to remove the idea of church-state separation, because that is where their plans always run aground (e.g. the ceaseless attempts to get creationism into schools, most recently scuppered in the celebrated case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District). So, if they can subtly rewrite the study of history to place less emphasis on it, or call into question whether it was what the founding fathers really intended, after a few generations of children have gone through the system they will hope to have a pool of people whose ideological predisposition is more in keeping with their own, and who can be more easily mobilised to fight against the secularism that they so detest. And that will mean, ultimately, triumph for the religious right.

For, make no mistake about it, the goal for many of these people is not limited to “removing liberal bias in our textbooks”, it is turning America into a Christian theocracy. It is a legal system based explicitly on the ten commandments (amusingly, this would actually be contrary to the constitution that they profess to respect, not that one of their main cheerleaders would necessarily realise that). It is an America free to wage holy war in defence of its interests, protected by faith in God (with some help from a large number of nuclear warheads). And, it goes without saying, it is an economy based on unfettered free market principles in which the poor, the vulnerable, the ‘different’ would suffer.

Whether this will come to pass is an open question. Obviously I hope not (though I imagine it would take several decades for the cultural mindset change required to take effect, so I wouldn’t expect to be confirmed or disconfirmed in this any time soon). There may be challenges to the actions of the board, perhaps political action against them (from both parties – there are Republicans as well as Democrats who are appalled at this naked politicisation of the syllabus). But it is worrying to think that large numbers of American children may be brought up to learn an inaccurate version of their nation’s history, loaded with right-wing propaganda. This does not bode well for the world.


One comment

  1. I see how the shenanigans of the Texas School Board could be construed as part of a sinister long term plan. I have no idea whether this is the case but if it is, it is doomed to failure. There is much to dislike but little to fear about the way the USA conducts its domestic affairs. USA is ‘exceptional’ in the community of advanced, developed countries in that it a curious (and offensive) religious and social ‘conservatism’ reinforces the condition of Deep Ignorance which is the default condition of a disturbingly large proportion of the population in the USA (or almost anywhere else for that matter). Fortunately, for all of us – the USA is here no exception – Good Sense (which includes the tiny but vital territory of Deep Knowledge), keeps the Real World we actually inhabit bowling along. As for the poor Texan children who will be given tainted and dishonest textbooks, they are at far greater risk from a debauched popular culture. Teenage Texan seekers after truth still have access to excellent, untainted, literature in every subject under the Sun from bookshops , online ones included. I’m sure the University of Texas would supply book lists to worried parents outside the social and religious conservative community.

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