Texas and the Terrible Waste of Minds

Posted May 22nd, 2010

As Michael Birnbaum writes in today’s Washington Post, “The Texas state school board gave final approval Friday to controversial social studies standards that minimize the separation of church and state and say that America is not a democracy but a ‘constitutional republic’.”

Cynthia Dunbar (Republican) explained the new premise on which Texas will build its curriculum. She says that the United States of America is “a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”

The new curriculum challenges the very idea that there is a Constitutional separation of church and state. Students will be encouraged to see the decline in the value of the U.S. dollar as a direct result of the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933, and the United Nations as an agency bent on undermining U.S. sovereignty. In Texas, this year will no longer be 2010 of the “Common Era” (C.E.) but 2010 A.D., the year of Our Lord (anno domini) 2010. On the other side of the divide, time will be said to take place “Before Christ” (B.C.) rather than Before the Common Era (B.C.E.). In Texas, Thomas Jefferson will no longer be important as a political philosopher and actor on the stage of world history.

By a vote of 9 to 5—and I cannot imagine what brought two other members to align with the seven-person conservative bloc—the Texas state school board has ensured that their children will grow up learning a “history” that is inconsistent with, and sometimes contrary to, history taught to children in the other forty-nine states and the District of Columbia. The new standards, the criteria that determine whether a child is acquiring necessary information and skills, will be in place by the fall of 2011.

For me it feels like déjà vu.

In September 1993 I moved to Merrimack, New Hampshire. In all the turmoil of unpacking, starting a new job and enrolling my Tattooed Boy in school (although then his epidermis was unmarked), I failed to register to vote in time in that fall’s local election. Mine was one of four votes that caused a seismic change in the school board, throwing power to Chris Ager, Shelly Uscinski and Ginny Twardosky. Out were the moderates who managed school matters with reasoned discourse and nuanced sensitivity to the community. In were extremists from the Christian Far Right.

They banned Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night from the curriculum because the cast includes the cross-dressing Viola. They advanced the cause of school prayer but settled for a moment of silence at the start of each day; they attempted to replace the study of evolution in the science curriculum with creationism. I remember one public meeting where a math curriculum devised by the State of New Jersey was deemed beneath contempt because it came from New Jersey. The school board also instituted Policy 6540:

“Policy 6540–Prohibition of Alternate (sic) Lifestyle Instruction-“The Merrimack School District shall neither implement nor carry out any program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative. A program or activity, for purpose of this item, includes the distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services on school grounds, or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle“.

In other words, if a child was experiencing gender confusion, dealing with the stress of learning that a parent is homosexual, a victim of sexual abuse, being bullied by classmates for real or perceived sexual orientation, or any difficulty typical of adolescence, a teacher could not provide a sympathetic and reassuring presence if that sympathy implied an acceptance of homosexuality; nor could a teacher refer a student for any reason to an outside agency if that agency provided services that implied an acceptance of homosexuality.

In 1996, when an election moved the politics of the school board back to center, Policy 6540 was repealed. I left Merrimack in 1997. Tempers were still raw but in the schools, at least, it seemed that education and not indoctrination was once again the rule.

The partisans of indoctrination, however, are tireless. In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education deleted evolution the material required by the science standards; until replaced by Texas, Kansas became the codeword for ignorance.

The American Library Association keeps records of books that have been removed from libraries and classrooms or challenged. Currently the top ten literary classics on the list are (starting with number 1): The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Ulysses by James Joyce; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Lord of the Flies by William Golding; 1984 by George Orwell; and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. For the record, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh comes in at number 22.

The message is clear. We demand a free and excellent education for our children—as long as they are not taught anything with which we disagree, or exposed to any intellectual or cultural experience that we do not fully embrace.

Education should introduce children to a world of possibility, not isolate them from it.

I remember a little girl I met when I was the curator of education at the Des Moines (IA) Art Center. She was, I believe, about ten and had come with a group of public-school fifth-graders, even though she was being home-schooled. Apparently her mother felt entitled to school enrichment programs although she wanted nothing to do with the curriculum being taught. A chaperone asked if the children, during the course of the tour, would encounter artworks showing nude figures.

Why yes, they would, I replied, just one or two, Rodin’s bronze of the writer Honoré de Balzac, perhaps something else.

Well then, where could this child sit until the tour was over and the group was to begin the studio activity we had planned? Her mother expressly forbade that she see any objects that involved nudity.

Nowhere, I said. The girl could not be left alone and unsupervised while the group was touring the collections. It simply wasn’t safe for her.

So I brought the youngster to my office. I don’t remember what we did, but we chatted and she helped me with something for about forty minutes and then I brought her to a classroom to rejoin her peers.

When we teach our children to read, we accept that they may open books that we find distasteful. When we teach our children science, we know that they may encounter ideas that challenge received wisdom. When we invite our children to write poems and stories, to paint and sculpt, compose music, dance and sing, we run the risk that they will go somewhere in the hearts and souls and imaginations that upsets us and the truths we claim to hold self-evident.

No matter how effective the teaching and rich the academic resources, the typical education offers only the most limited glimpse of the world. All our children, however intelligent and perceptive, emerge from school but not from Plato’s cave. What they know are shadows, simulacra, intimations of truths that they will spend the rest of their lives trying to grasp and pin down.

A mind, as the slogan went, is a terrible thing to waste. What a waste that mindlessness can take over a school board. Or a country.



Leave a Comment