Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Teaching Our Children Well

“It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.” (Alec Bourne)

For those of us without the ability to stream video easily, inexpensively, and efficiently, PBS is a gift. Through programming such as Frontline and Independent Lens, we can see carefully researched documentaries on a wide variety of topics important to a healthy nation.

One that I enjoyed recently (28 January 2013) is The Revisionaries. Directed by Scott Thurman and written by Brooke Shelby Biggs, Jeffrey Dinsmore, and others, the film reveals members of the Texas State School Board as they apply their “personal ideological beliefs” to establish learning priorities and shape curriculum in Texas. What happens in Texas does not, however, affect Texas alone. With a large population and therefore, a huge textbook market, Texas shapes textbook content in more states than its own.

Under the leadership of dentist Don McLeroy, a member of the State Board of Education from 1998-2011 and its chair from 2007-2011, some historical figures, including Cesar Chavez, have been pushed aside while others, especially Ronald Reagan, have been highlighted. McLeroy’s Board also worked to insure that students believe this nation is fundamentally and inextricably linked to Christianity without any consideration whatsoever for the exclusionary methods of early Christians or for their genocidal practices toward the first Americans. The Texas Board labored to put the most positive spin upon the Founders and to transform them into their own vision of devout Christians with special emphasis upon their Board members’ belief that a separation between church and state was never intended nor embraced by them, and the Founders’ link to Christianity is not the only positive spin required. The McLeroy board also wants McCarthyism spun.

In addition, from his personal bully pulpit, the dental chair, Don McLeroy proselytizes as he drills, sings hymns as he examines, and asks patients if they believe in evolution. His theology, especially his rejection of a common ancestor for all life forms, has become part of his practice. Several minutes of the documentary show McLeroy’s captive audience--his dental patients--with mouths agape as their dentist preaches.

The film opens, however, with McLeroy being questioned by the Texas legislature in 2009 because so many Texas constituents had complained to their legislators, resulting in legislation that curtails the power of the Board to shape curriculum. When asked if McLeroy wished to supplant evolution with Intelligent Design, he demurred, admitting that he did not wish to force the study of Intelligent Design upon students, but he did hope that students would learn to doubt the credibility of evolution after a careful analysis and evaluation of the theory.

Although McLeroy’s stamp is upon the TX curriculum in the third decade of the twenty-first century, he failed to win reelection. The Board itself is no longer heavily weighted with ultra-conservative members. Still it leans right as does the entire state. In 2012, the TX GOP included in its platform the following:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

In other words, the GOP believes in the sovereignty of parents to teach their children what they believe to be true--even if that happens to be untrue. For example, the GOP would allow students to dismiss evolution as a ridiculous theory for which no scientific evidence exists, and the current iteration of the GOP dismisses climate change as a natural occurring phenomenon rather that the consequence of man’s enterprise in creating a greenhouse effect. The party and many of its members argue that forcing children to believe in certain, well-defined outcomes, including an understanding of evolution and climate change, would be to redefine the values that parents hold dear, that parents wish their children to hold dear, and is therefore undesirable.

Such a philosophical and political posture undermines the body of knowledge that exists. It heralds ignorance as an acceptable, even preferable, social value. The party’s platform suggests that taking matters on faith is not just preferable, but also better than learning to analyze and evaluate. The platform declaration elevates the unexamined life and a world in which all frontiers of inquiry slam shut.

The TX GOP prefers to cripple its children by allowing them to believe that matters of the known world are not, in fact, known at all. Those children will encounter surprise--at least--and cynicism--at worst--once they leave their homes and TX public schools. They will find doubt cast upon their beliefs and will likely be unarmed to defend their beliefs, primarily because compelling evidence does not exist for their family-bred, uncritically claimed beliefs.

Let us not forsake science or the truth, unvarnished, blemishes and all. Our children do not need to wallow in the depravities that have occurred as men claimed sovereignty over beasts and each other, but they should know that the record of mankind is one that improves as it evolves. Once we condemned and exiled a woman, Anne Hutchison, for daring to hold prayer meetings and Bible study in her home. Today, women serve as preachers and reverends and pastors. Once we sent Roger Williams packing because he defended the Native Americans’ sovereign rights to the land against the European settlers who claimed it for themselves. We have since upheld Roger Williams’ convictions and have acknowledged the hazards of social Darwinism.

Above all, our children should know that “the arc of justice is long, but bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr.), and they should admire King, the man who stood against superstition, ignorance, and prejudice to promise justice to the many, not the few.