My wife and I watched one of those Christopher Guest mockumentaries last night. Only to realize, to our horror, that it was an actual doc, and that the people in it weren’t actors.
The Revisionaries is a 2012 documentary by Scott Thurman about two battles in the Texas State Board of Education over the curriculum standards that they insist be addressed in the textbooks they purchase. Textbook publishers have to pay a lot of attention to Texas, because the state buys so many textbooks, and because other conservatives states tend to follow Texas’ lead. So while the Board deliberates, textbook writers and publishers watch, with increasing dismay, as School Board President, Don McLeroy (probably Fred Willard in the Christopher Guest version) fights for creationism in science textbooks, and a Christian dominionist perspective in Social Studies textbooks. He’s joined by Liberty University law professor Cynthia Dunbar (the Catherine O’Hara role), SMU anthropology professor Ron Wetherington (Michael McKean), and Texas Freedom Network head Kathy Miller (Deborah Theaker).
I know I’ve pushed the Christopher Guest joke way too far. But McLeroy almost does seem like a caricature. He’s a young-earth creationist, convinced that the earth is 6000 years old, that Noah had dinosaurs on his ark, that the Bible is inerrant. He’s a dentist by profession, and we see him preaching (I guess he’d say ‘witnessing’) to his patients. Which I would find immensely annoying, enough to find another dentist, but he seems to have a large practice, and a successful one. But he’s an agreeable guy, a fine, energetic Sunday School teacher. And the last guy on the planet earth you want on a State School Board.
The School Board battles depicted in the film are over what strikes me as minutiae. Should science teachers be required to teach ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ of evolutionary theory? Should students have to ‘evaluate’ scientific claims. On one hand, that language doesn’t strike me as terribly anti-educational. But you can see how it might open the door to creationism. A door Don McLeroy very much wants opened, as he quite candidly admits.So he sees getting ‘evaluate’ into the standards as a major victory.
It’s important to understand that nuance. McLeroy isn’t stupid. He knows that he’ll never get away with straight-out creationism. ‘Intelligent design’ is slightly less problematic, but he also knows it won’t fly as official state educational policy. So his efforts are intended to subtly discredit evolution, by insisting that students be required to consider ‘both sides’ of the debate over it. And when scientists (like Wetherington, in the film) insist that there actually aren’t two sides to a debate over evolution, they come across as dogmatic and close-minded. And McLeroy’s an agreeable guy. And he and Wetherington are pretty friendly. In the best scene in the film, the two of them sit own and have a pleasant enough conversation about their differences. You think, ‘gee, that should happen more often.’
By the same token, Cynthia Dunbar gets into it about insisting students know about the various intellectual influences on the American Revolution. So she lists names: Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire. Sure, fine; good people for high school kids to have to know. Then she goes: ‘John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas.’ And you think, Saint Thomas Aquinas, an Enlightenment figure? And she says, ‘oh, and we need to drop Thomas Jefferson from the list.’ Uh, what? Then (I couldn’t believe it), an amendment is proposed to include Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to a list of important intellectuals of the American Revolution. And it fails. In favor of Aquinas and Calvin.
So the whole debate gets pretty weird. The standards the Board is revising came from qualified experts in the field: actual scientists, actual historians. And the school board people aren’t really qualified at all. McLeroy is, after all, a dentist. Cynthia Dunbar is a law school professor. But at Liberty University, on-line. And you can tell that the Christian conservatives on the Board have an agenda–they’re even pretty open about it–but the battles are on the margins, on specific language to be used in guidelines for textbook purchases.
My favorite moment in the film is when they’re talking about questions a teacher might raise in a classroom, and a question comes up about the political importance of hip-hop. And McLeroy says, ‘I propose to change ‘hip-hop’ to ‘country music.” I was pleased by the compromise that led to–one in which students could talk about either hip-hop or country. Multi-culturalism rules.
Still, it’s a scary film. (And while the filmmakers clearly are trying to be even-handed, the music they use lets them down–it’s a bit too spot-on, scary for McLeroy, upbeat for Wetherington.) But if Don McLeroy seems like a caricature, it’s because that’s how he presents himself. But the real problem is this: State Board of Education elections have very low voter turnout.
In an election with 10 or 15 or 20 percent participation, the most motivated voters can have disproportionate impact. And a state school board ends up dominated by people with frankly extreme views. And, presumably, education suffers. Decisions get made by the people who show up. Which suggests that we really all need to vote, every time, every election. Make our voices heard.