Education, Texas-Style

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” — Charles Darwin from Descent of Man

I really don’t get the mindset of folks down in Texas. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around what a conservative voting-bloc on the Board of Education did last week, and, quite frankly, I’m still astonished. Just when you think they’ve gone as low as they can go in their cynical subversion of truth, they exhibit even more outrageous behavior. In their rewriting of state social studies curriculum in the past year, there have been countless examples of how they have attempted to foster their own abysmal ignorance and extreme religious worldview on Texas’ schoolchildren:

• The brazen display of arrogance in November when they told the panel of academic experts and historians who wrote the draft version of the curriculum to stay home and not bother coming to the board’s review of it. They didn’t need their help;

• Striking the word “democratic” from the description of the U.S. government, instead terming it a “constitutional republic”;

Portraying Sen. Joe McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt smears as being vindicated by history;

• The removal of the children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear from the curriculum because its author Bill Martin shares the same name with a Marxist scholar;

• The requirement that president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address must be taught alongside the writings of President Abraham Lincoln; 

• Their voting down an amendment that would have required students to know how “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

The list goes on…

But they went too far when they voted to cut the writings of Thomas Jefferson from a discussion of Enlightenment ideas and the impact they had on political revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century. (They also cut out the word “Enlightenment.”) Of course, Jefferson, a deist who didn’t have much use for Christianity and who coined the term “separation of church and state,” creates a problem for those who argue the founding fathers wanted American to be a “Christian nation.”

I’ve spoken to board member Don McLeroy quite a few times on the phone and he genuinely seems like someone who wants to be understood and have people appreciate what he’s doing. (I’ve never met or spoken to Cynthia Dunbar, but she strikes me as someone who really doesn’t care what people think of her.) So, I feel like calling up McLeroy and saying, “You, sir, are a cheater!”

Because from the perspective of the literal-minded (and fundamentalists are nothing if not literal-minded), it’s not unreasonable to argue that separation of church is a myth because nowhere in the First Amendment does it actually say that. Of course, such an argument reveals an utter lack of understanding of the inter-workings of the three branches of U.S. governments, the basics of most high school civics classes.

But to simply take out the writings of one of our most influential founding fathers and one of the leading intellectual forces of democracy is not just being literal and simple-minded. That’s Orwellian propaganda.

But this short-sighted maneuver could actually backfire. By downgrading Jefferson’s writings, they’re forgetting a document that is key to their whole argument that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. The Declaration of Independence has become a key document for far-right Christian conservatives of late. There has been a movement to require that when teaching students about the U.S. Constitution, teachers must give equal play to the Declaration, which Jefferson wrote. The reason? Because nowhere in the Constitution is the word God ever mentioned. However, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson refers to a creator, as well as “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Voila! Proof that the founding fathers intended us to all worship Jesus Christ.

In a wonderful wonderful piece “Why is Texas Afraid of Thomas Jefferson?” on the History News Network website, Matthew Crows writes:

Quite rightly, those seeking to walk back the American constitutional commitment to a “wall of separation between church and state” understand that they need to do something with the figure of Thomas Jefferson.  Given the fact that arguments for a divinely sanctioned natural law background to the U.S. Constitution continually rely on Jefferson’s “Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence as evidence, erasing Jefferson for the sake of combating secularism may prove problematic down the road. 

I urge you to read the whole piece.

But then again little things like cheating and lying don’t matter when you’ve convinced yourself that you’re one of the foot soldiers in the culture wars and that you’re fighting for Jesus. Maybe instead of calling Dr. McLeroy on the phone, I’ll just send him a copy of George Orwell’s 1984.