Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Defense of Reality

When the comedian Stephen Colbert made his famous quip that reality has a liberal bias, he was actually kidding.

For some, it is no joke. They are concerned that the historical record offers too much aid and comfort to what is, in their view, a "liberal" worldview. This is certainly the opinion of the Texas State Board of Education, which this week mandated new curricular standards in history and social studies that make some stunning moves toward rewriting history to their liking and shaping a political viewpoint consistent with the reactionary right wing.

One concern raised by educators is a greater emphasis on learning data whereas critical thinking is not encouraged. For example, here is an approved essay topic: Explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict. Will students be allowed to question the premise and include a critique of Zionism if they choose? Will they even be permitted to consider the impact of settlements and blockades on the Palestinian people, and include their viewpoint?

One has to doubt it, looking over the other curricular standards. For instance, it calls for students to be taught that Senator Joseph McCarthy was eventually exonerated and that his claims about Communist infiltration of the United States government was based on reality.

Board member Don McLeroy is up front about what's going on here. The new curriculum is part of a culture war, and by rewriting history he will turn the education of our children into a theatre for this culture war. In his words: “The proposed changes have attracted national attention because they challenge the powerful ideology of the left and highlight the great political divide of our country. The left’s principles are diametrically opposed to our founding principles. The left believes in big, not limited, government; they empower the state, not the individual; they focus on differences, not unity."

Reality does not, in fact, have a liberal bias. Our founders did not organize themselves as "liberals" and "conservatives," although they certainly held a range of views on many issues. One of those issues was the relationship between church and state. A heated debate took place on whether we should be an explicitly Christian state (Madison and Jay were on this side among others) versus the concept that church and state would both benefit by occupying distinct and separate spheres (the Jefferson and Washington view).

Our founders did not all agree, and the political fight was won by those favoring separate spheres. This is historical fact. It is documented and settled. It is not a statement of liberal ideology. It is reality. One might disagree with how it turned out, but that is how it turned out.

In Texas, however, for the next ten years, students will be asked to "contrast the Founders' intent relative to the wording of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, with the popular term 'Separation of church and state.'" The very premise of the question rewrites history.

Don McLeroy and his culture warriors on the Texas State Board of Education have chosen to write their own version of the historical record. The debate, which has gone on on for months and been followed very closely by journalists and a concerned public, has been political in character and not academic. It is, in short, precisely what they falsely accuse "liberals" of having done: indoctrinating young minds into a political philosophy and thus handicapping them in the areas of research and critical thinking.

Washington Monthly blogger Steve Benen treated this rather well, writing, "This is not just a travesty for academic integrity and students in Texas, but it's also a reminder of what's gone horribly wrong with the twisted right-wing worldview. These state officials have decided they simply don't care for reality, so they've replaced it with a version of events that makes them feel better. The result is an American history in which every era has been distorted to satisfy the far-right ego."

[Photo: Board member Don McLeroy]

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