Mar 15 2010

The Texas Textbook Hubbub

Texas is becoming a recurring spectacle of the triumph of anti-intellectualism and ignorance over science and reason. The substance of this spectacle is the Texas Board of Education (BoE) and the standards for public school textbooks. This is a local triumph, but it has widespread implications, as Texas is a major purchaser of textbooks, and so the industry generally caters to the Texas standards.

Last year our attention was drawn to the Texas BoE over the science standards, with particular attention to evolution. One member in particular, Don McLeroy (who was chairman but was removed) entertained (by which I mean frightened) us with phrases such as “someone has to stand up to those experts.” The particular controversy was over whether or not to insert language into the standards that opens the door for teachers to “question evolution,” meaning to insert creationist propaganda as science.

The new language that was put in includes that students must “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments.” Language was also put in to specifically question the age of the universe, the nature of stasis and change in the fossil record, and the complexity of the cell and information in DNA.

This year the focus of the Texas BoE is to review the standards for world history, and amazingly they have been as successful in causing mischief as they were with the science standards. Don McLeroy is still on the BoE, however he recently lost his reelection bid, and so will be out at the end of the year. Meanwhile, he promises to go full steam ahead with his admittedly religious conservative agenda. (See the Nightline interview from Thursday 3/11 for details.)

The Texas BoE, with or without McLeroy, is dominated by Christian Conservatives. This is not inherently a problem, in my opinion, as long as everyone is dedicated to performing their duty rather than using their position to promote their personal ideological agenda. Alas, that does not appear to be the case.

Carl Zimmer reports that the board voted to remove specific references to the Enlightenment (yes, the Enlightenment) and to (wait for it) Thomas Jefferson. Can there be a better metaphor for the fact that the Texas BoE is unenlightened and they desire Texas students to be unenlightened also?

What’s their problem with Thomas Jefferson – we can only imagine. They argued we was superfluous, which is absurd. Could it have something to do with the fact that Jefferson was the primary architect of the separate of church and state, and that he himself was a deist?

In addition, the BoE has voted to engage in a bit of historical revisionism, among other things voting to insert language that suggest the McCarthyism witch hunts of the 1950s were justified and later vindicated. They also voted for removing reference to Thurgood Marshall, and inserting references to the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, the Moral Majority, and the Contract with America.

History textbooks have always had the problem of political bias (remember the old adage that the victors get to write the history books), and it would be misleading to suggest this is a local or new problem. I also probably risk some of your ire by suggesting the Texas BoE is not entirely wrong when they argue that history textbooks have an existing liberal bias. I remember enough of my high school American history class to believe this is probably true. In fact, we had a discussion in class about bias in history books, discussing in particular the treatment of Richard Nixon with that of Millard Fillmore – the point being that the closer you get to the present, or to issues that are still controversial, the more bias becomes an issue.

The goal should be to eliminate all bias from the textbooks, including (especially) our own. If there is a liberal bias, then let’s have a balanced review and do our best to fairly present history from every perspective and with as little bias as possible. The Texas BoE has not chosen this path. Rather, they have chosen to simply insert as much of their own conservative bias as possible. This does not “balance” the history textbooks, however – it simply inserts more biased history.

It seems to me that one solution, perhaps the best, is to review the history texts with as broad and cosmopolitan a view as possible. This will allow for local biases to average out and for a consensus view to emerge. This very solution has been proposed by state governors – who have suggested the creation of national educational standards to replace state standards (a project called common core).  While they are starting with math and English, this could also apply to science and history.

This idea was proposed to solve the debate over the role of the federal government vs state governments in education. States have resisted federal standards – but this system is a voluntary system proposed by the states themselves. So far every state but two has signed on – the holdouts are Alaska and (you guessed it) Texas.

Another potential solution is to dampen the power of the textbook industry over the quality of our educational system, and by extension the power of the Texas BoE. One way to do this is to simply create high quality textbooks and make them available for free online. I think this is the future anyway – why print outdated material when you can have updated online material.  Material can be printed as needed off the online textbooks, especially for use by school systems with limited computer resources. There are already online wiki-style textbooks being developed. What we need now is a non-profit dedicated to organizing these efforts and imposing a system of quality control. I strongly suspect that the quality such a process would produce would be far superior to the crap the textbook industry generally produces.


The Texas BoE is a depressing spectacle – they represent the absolute worst example of abusing authority to promote a personal ideology, betraying the public trust to promote instead high educational standards. But perhaps the spectacle can be put to good use, focusing attention on the broader problem of the quality of education in the US and potential solutions. We need better and more uniform standards, and better textbooks.

In his Nightline interview McLeroy acknowledged that the Texas BoE has an influence that goes far beyond Texas – so they are acutely aware of the power they wield and choose to abuse it anyway. Perhaps it is time to move away from the tyranny of local majorities in education, to more consensus and quality-driven standards.

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