Two by Two by Triceratops

sci•ence

  •  the state of knowing
  •  knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
  •  knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

scientific method

  • principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

‘And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”‘ – George Owell, 1984

In the early months of 2010, the Texas Board of Education mandated an unprecedented series of changes to history books that were soon to be used in Texas public schools. While the changes sparked a short-lived media controversy, the issue was largely forgotten during the opening months of the Republican Primary race announcements. Largely out of public notice, the Texas State Board of Educators approved the amendments, 10-to-5, making over 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards which affect history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school. Those standards had originally been created by a panel of esteemed educators and scholars in the social sciences.

The changes generally involved changes to the language used, but did involve cases where historical references were changed or additional ‘facts’ were added. While this might seem somewhat innocuous, it was the nature of the changes that cause exceptional worry in historians. In my opinion, it should cause worry in us all.

Some of the most noteworthy changes were the replacement of the terms ‘capitalism’ with ‘free market’ and ‘imperialism’ with ‘expansionism’. The problem is that these terms are not truly interchangeable. The American economic system is Capitalism. Our conquest of Hawaii and the seizure of lands previously owned by Native Americans can only be described as Imperialism. Redefining how we describe our history dilutes the lessons it has to teach. Even more disturbing is the redefinition of our entire system of government as being a ‘constitutional republic’ and not a ‘democracy’. While both are technically correct, why change things? Because the the term ‘democratic’ sounds too much like Democrat, whereas ‘republic’ sounds more like Republican.

Ten of the fifteen board members are avowed Republicans. The apparent intent of these changes are to cast the Republican party and its specific interests in a better light. One of the changes was to downplay the importance of Thomas Jefferson as a Founding father because he was not a practicing Christian. They also struck down a requirement to ensure that “students learn that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others.”  The board decided to strike down the inclusion of hip hop music in favor of country music as a uniquely American invention, even though country music is generally derived from a combination of European, Old English and Irish music. Music like Jazz and Hip Hop originated purely is America, but… well, draw your own conclusions why they weren’t picked. This might sound like a ‘race card’ being dropped, but they also reduced the attention given to Lincoln’s inauguration and emancipation speeches and gave equal accounting to Andrew Jackson’s inauguration and subsequent speeches. While I can see Jackson’s role in our history as deserving attention, it seems suspicious to me that they’d also reduce attention given to the Great Emancipator unless the abolition of slavery was less important to them than the historical tenets of the successionist states.

The problem with this is that the Texas Board of Educators were making decisions based upon political and philosophical reasons, not scholarly or educational ones. David Bradley, a board member, even admitted to this politicization of the process, saying “We took our licks, we got outvoted [in a vote 10 years ago] … Now it’s 10-5 in the other direction … we’re an elected body, this is a political process. Outside that, go find yourself a benevolent dictator.”  They favored terms and events that inferred a more ‘conservative’ outlook and removed terms and facts of a more liberal nature. Ultimately, this will reduce the objectivity of the education that the children will be receiving; it limits the full scope of the history of the United States and diminishes the contributions of minorities. When history is viewed retroactively through a politically-tinted lens  we often change the meaning and implications of what has shaped our nation.

I question both the credentials and the agenda of the members of the Board. The vast majority are lawyers and businessmen, not educators or scholars. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas State Board at that time, has even gone on record indicating he believes that dinosaurs existed concurrently with homo sapiens and were present on Noah’s Ark during the Biblical Flood. While I will not challenge his beliefs, I will question his capacity to make objective decisions. The belief that tigers and triceratops co-mingled in Noah’s Ark indicates a very specific worldview and belief system. If he believes that textbooks should teach this as scientific fact, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then how can he objectively make decisions about American history without letting his own personal beliefs color those decisions?

So, why is this important now, two years later? Or to you specifically, who may not even live in Texas? First of all, Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the country, so large in fact that their orders often can influence the price of certain books in the market thereby lowering them. When this occurs, other school districts across the country will also purchase the same books, since they are priced lower due to Texas’s orders. In this way, what Texas chooses as textbooks is often what a large portion of America’s school districts will be using to teach their students. By now, your children might be studying history with a decidedly partisan outlook. Luckily, teachers still have some sway in exactly what lessons children take from their studies, but clearly the foundations of educational objectivity are being challenged.

However, more worrying is that this is just another example of the previously inviolable nature of factual evidence and scientific methodology being gradually eroded and suborned by political agendas. There’s an old maxim that ‘history is written by the victor’ but that’s a fallacious statement. History is actually written by a quorum of observers. What we know as true is based upon centuries of documentation that corroborates specific facts. And while it can be said that scientific truth is always evolving, always changing, the methodology to obtain that ‘truth’ is even more structured and less subjective than that employed by historians. It is determined by experimentation that is replicated by peers scientists who have all reached the same conclusions. In short, scientific fact is proven by observation and repeated testing and history is written because evidence indicates that an event occurred a specific way or because of a specific reason.

What we are seeing is the trumping of truth and fact by conservative ideology and expediency, a process that has been ongoing for the last two decades. Science and learning are ridiculed and spurned by the conservative right. In September, Rick Santorum admitted that “[Conservatives] will never have the elite, smart people on our side”, which he accepts as the status quo. It’s not unsurprising that conservatives eschew any type of cooperation with scientific experts; those people could readily discount the entire foundation for the narrative the conservatives are supporting, especially about issues like global warming and the economy. For Republicans, ignorance is bliss.

As Americans, we truly need to examine what we’re being told, what our representatives are doing. I’m sure the vast majority of Texas did not expect the Texas Board of Education to make the sweeping changes it made, under the helm of a dentist who believes dinosaurs took a cruise with Noah. This has to start before we tick a box on a ballot. This means looking into what your representatives believe and say, even when not in front of a camera (especially when not in front of a camera!). This is not just about whose fiscal policy will chart the course of the country; it’s about whose philosophical values will dictate what our children are taught and understand, about moral values that tell us who we can marry or who is a worthwhile citizen and how they can become one.

In short, it’s about revising who we were as a country, who we currently are, and who we will become. Make sure that America is representative of a melting pot of ideas, not just the worldview of a select few.

Advertisements

One thought on “Two by Two by Triceratops

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s