Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Texas Board of Education, Propaganda, and the Threat to the Future

There have been two big stories in the recent past about the Texas Board of Education. Neither brings good news. Both, in fact, represent an all-out, open carried guns-blazing attack on public education in the state. These particular assaults come from the most frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics of the state’s GOP—the Democrats are terrible on education; the Republicans, by contrast, make them look like Solomon, Confucius, Socrates, Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci rolled into one. Indeed, it is a rather profound testament to the skill, tenacity, perseverance, and general badassitude of literally thousands of teachers in this state that anyone entering Curmie’s university-level classroom knows literally anything that’s actually true… or the difference between fact and opinion.

Donna Bahorich, the new Chief Propagandist
Chair of the Texas Board of Education
First, Governor Greg Abbott, whose sole raison d’être, as far as Curmie can figure out, is to make us nostalgic for the idiot that is Rick Perry, named Donna Bahorich as the new chairperson of the TBOE. Had it been his desire to find the worst possible person for the job (and, let’s face it, it pretty much was), he could not have done much better.

The Texas Freedom Network (of which—full disclosure—Curmie is a member) is an organization that believes education ought to be a process of developing mental acuities, of refining critical thinking skills, and of distinguishing between actual academic disciplines on the one hand and religio-political mythology on the other. Here’s what their press release has to say about the Bahorich nomination:
If Gov. Abbott wanted to demonstrate that he won’t continue his predecessor’s efforts to politicize and undermine our state’s public schools, this appointment falls far short. The governor has appointed as board chair an ideologue who voted to adopt new textbooks that scholars sharply criticized as distorting American history, who rejected public education for her own family and who supports shifting tax dollars from neighborhood public schools to private and religious schools through vouchers. This appointment almost guarantees that the board will continue to put culture war agendas ahead of educating more than 5 million Texas kids.
Let me call your attention to something in this paragraph you might have missed. Bahorich home-schooled her own kids, then sent them off to private religious high schools. Yes, really. And she seems to think that’s a job qualification!

The outgoing chair, Barbara Cargill, is also an ideologue and a Bible-thumper, but at least she has taught in the public schools. (Of course, the fact that a science teacher would support creationism in public schools might be more disturbing than having a home-schooler do so.)

Even Republicans on the TBOE are raising eyebrows at the audacity of naming someone as singularly ill-suited for the job as Bahorich. Here’s Board member and former vice-chair Thomas Ratliff, for example:
Public school isn’t for everybody, but when 94-percent of our students in Texas attend public schools, I think it ought to be a baseline requirement that the chair of the State Board of Education have at least some experience in that realm, as a parent, teacher, something.
You know, that sort of makes sense to anyone with an IQ above room temperature. Of course, that leaves out a fair number of politicians (and, let’s face, that’s all TBOE members are).

The other headline isn’t really news. Rather, it’s the implementation of new standards in history textbooks that will take place this fall. The actual codification of those standards took place years ago, in an embarrassing display that Curmie wrote about in his very first essay in this blogging persona and then again a couple of months later. The entire process was a clown show from start to finish… you can check out some of the details in those posts from 2010.

Why this story has resurrected is only partially the imminence of the effects of these frankly silly and anti-intellectual standards: the new textbooks will be in classrooms in the fall. But one particularly idiotic suggestion in the TBOE’s laundry list of inanity has a new-found relevance. Here’s a paragraph from what I wrote in May of 2010:
The Board now lists “sectionalism” (whatever the hell that is) as the principal cause of the Civil War. Slavery? Third in line, behind states’ rights. The Venona papers, which prove basically that some of the people whose lives were ruined by HUAC and/or Joseph McCarthy were in fact guilty, are now credited with “confirm[ing]” HUAC “findings.” The conservative faction, generally all about required lists, shifted ground when Sonia Sotomayor was added to a standard on women’s contributions to American history… all of a sudden, that list is merely “suggested.”
You caught it, didn’t you, Gentle Reader? That first bit, about the causes of the Civil War? You see, I bet you thought the Civil War was about slavery, didn’t you? That’s because the Civil War was about slavery. Except in Texas: because although nobody really knows WTF “sectionalism” is, it was that, not the… um… you know… other thing, caused the war.

There’s a word for that line of reasoning, and it rhymes with fullbit.

Given the recent controversies over the Confederate battle flag, the Civil War in general has become a topic of conversation, and with it the insane notion, propagated by a whole lot of people who aren’t historians and precisely none who are, that slavery was only tertiarily related to the Civil War. This is akin to ascribing a cause of death to heart failure, while casually ignoring the bullet in the chest.

Alexander H. Stephens
At least he was honest about what he believed.
But don’t take it from me. Listen instead to the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, who, presumably, was reasonably well acquainted with the relevant motivations of the participants:
…the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution….

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Is it just me, or is that pretty damned clear? There’s a reason Texas students are required to read Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address (which doesn’t mention slavery per se) but not this “Cornerstone speech.” That reason is precisely, unequivocally, and absolutely intentionally to present a distorted view of the past to undergird a 21st century political (and religio-political) agenda.  Call it indoctrination.  Call it propaganda.  But it sure as hell isn’t education.

By the way, Texas’s own secession document is absolutely clear, as well:
[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.
The document goes on to detail the alleged atrocities committed by the “non-slave-holding states,” amounting essentially to “they don’t want us to have slaves anymore”:
…based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
Nope, slavery sure wasn’t an issue. Not unless you count the 21 references to “slaves,” “slave-holding,” or “slavery” and the nine instances of “race” or “races” in that “Declaration of Causes” (by contrast, “rights” appears four times).

The proponents of the new standards are fools or charlatans or both, and this is troubling in two ways. First, and most obviously, these people have a lot of power, and their indoctrination attempts are far more successful than many people believe. Even in a “liberal” discipline like theatre, I often encounter students who proclaim that the US was founded as a “Christian nation” and evince utter contempt for those who argue that, say, slavery was an issue in the Civil War.

Equally important, however, is the erosion of the “brand” of Conservative. When Curmie was a lad, the two major political parties agreed on the value of education per se, on the need for funding of primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions alike, and on the quest for truth. Sure, there were disagreements about priorities, and there were different interpretations of events. That’s what makes for a free and informed electorate. But there weren’t separate facts. They’re an invention of a new and vastly inferior breed of pseudo-conservative, a “conservative” who ignores actual facts when mythology better serves the short-term interests of one’s political cronies.

Evolution is the foundational belief in modern biology. Dinosaurs were long gone before any species bearing the slightest resemblance to ours existed. The earth is not the center of the universe. The authors of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson), the Preamble to the Constitution (Gouverneur Morris), and the Constitution itself including the Bill of Rights (James Madison) all wrote specifically that the United States is not a Christian nation. And slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. Facts.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the elephant should be the symbol of the GOP, because the facts are the elephant in the middle of the room, and every national Republican politician is trying very hard indeed to ignore that well-fed pachyderm. They—the ones who aren’t naturally stone stupid, at least—are engaging in a terrifying game of anti-intellectual chicken. They truly believe, to paraphrase Isaac Asimov, that their ignorance is as good as other folks’ knowledge. It is not. There are, of course, plenty of Republicans who aren’t idiots. But they’re not raising their voices even a little bit to insist that our students, the people who will be running the country someday, deserve better. They deserve the truth. And we as a society need to provide it or we will, to coin a phrase, perish from the earth.

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