Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On the Texas Board of Education

I’ve largely avoided commenting on the whole Texas Board of Education thing and their stupidity other than the occasional snarky head shaking.  In general, people far more qualified than me have been decrying their anti-science stances and that has been overshadowing the violence they were doing to the Social Studies curriculum.  For a long time, too, it just looked like garden-variety racism and anti-progressivism was driving the ultra conservative agenda.

But what they’ve actually managed to do is deeply, deeply unsettling.  They went far beyond removing non-male, non-whites from the pages of history.  They've created an American history standard that eliminates the Enlightenment and actually allows them to pretend America was explicitly founded on Christian principles.  Although it has created one short-term benefit.  I discovered today, via Dispatches, that it lead Chuck Norris to write the most ironic op-ed I’ve ever seen.

In an article at the WorldNutDaily entitled “Don’t Mess with Texas…Textbooks,” Norris praised the School Board’s decision.  It included this quote:

Even Thomas Jefferson, while protecting the University of Virginia (chartered in 1819) from the single sectarianism typically connected to other higher academic institutions of his day, wrote about his vision for the university on Dec. 27, 1820: "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it."

That seems to me the charter of a true American system of education. But as we know, our nation's public schools, and especially our nation's colleges and universities, are the seedbeds of politically correct and liberal indoctrination, out of sync with our founders' vision and views. It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

First of all, the Jefferson quote does not, in any way, shape, or form, support Norris’s, or the School Board’s, supposition about the nature of truth.  The New York Times article includes this quote from Board Chairman (voted out, but not in time…) Don McLeroy (of “somebody’s got to stand up to those experts!” fame):

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

The idea is that education itself has a liberal bias.  All the School Board is doing, in their opinion, is standing up to that bias by bringing in the truth.  Specifically, their truth, which comes from a single source: the Christian Bible.

This is the only context in which the Jefferson quote used by Norris actually makes a damn bit of sense.  Because in reality, the University of Virginia’s pursuit of the freedom of the human mind and human reason has fuck-all to do with Norris or McLeroy’s limited, sectarian vision of god.

In 1800, Jefferson wrote a letter in which he outlined the ideals of the University of Virginia.  "We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us."*

American institutions of higher learning before the University of Virginia were largely (or, possibly, exclusively.  I think the word is “exclusively,” but I’m not 100% on that) faith-based schools.  Harvard, Yale, and the other Ivies were founded either as divinity schools or with the traditional medieval scholastic purposes that strongly leaned toward theological goals.  These, meanwhile, were based on the venerable British and continental European institutions that stretched back to the foundations of the scholastic movement, when the only people with a higher education were priests and monks.  The University of Virginia explicitly did not have a theological bent.  This is because Jefferson declared that the school was to have no department and no professor of theology.

As such, the University of Virginia was the school that set in motion the American ideal of a higher education in the naturalistic sciences.  My own modest alma mater of Western Illinois University owes more to the University of Virginia than Yale and, quite frankly, I appreciate it for that.  As such, Chuck Norris is exactly right.  Jefferson's vision for UVa was exactly a charter of the American system of education.  And it did create a seedbed of liberal thought because that's exactly what Jefferson wanted.  I'm speaking here of liberalism in the classical sense: of the minimization of feudal ideas of lords in favor of those most American ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Compulsory service, whether to a temporal or eternal lord, stands directly astride the path to liberty and happiness.

That “illimitable freedom of the human mind” upon which Jefferson based the University of Virginia meant, in short, a human mind not limited by superstition and the disapproving glare of an ancient, tribal god.

It is for precisely this reason that the Texas State Board of Education…well, I’ll let the New York Times speak for me on this:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)




Especially in light of this:

“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate. “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

It’s the FIRST FUCKING AMENDMENT.  You can’t skip the Establishment Clause and go directly to the bit that says that Congress can’t prohibit the free exercise of religion.  It doesn’t work that way.  Then again, these are Biblical literalists we’re talking about.  So they’re probably getting off on a technicality.  The First Amendment isn’t technically a part of the Constitution since it’s, y’know, an amendment.  And it doesn’t explicitly say “separation of church and state,” it says “respecting the establishment of,” which, really, could mean anything.  Anything at all.  If you’re a complete moron.  Like, say, David Bradley of Beaumont, Texas.  These are the same people who reject homosexuality because it's against the Old Testament while wearing mixed cloth and eating shellfish, after all.

They're the same people who claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus while spouting hatred against the poor, the homeless, and the destitute.  If they can twist the Bible around that much, the Constitution's no great struggle.

Also, I’ll take my thousand dollars now.  And I’d like to donate it to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.  Thanks a bunch.

Honestly, I don’t even know what to say.  So, instead, I’ll just say what I said on the Dispatches thread:

Their goal is to, quite literally, re-make history in their image. The Christian Right in America has long been making statements about how America is a Christian nation and, as such, we should all be Christians. But the problem is that this is not backed up by actual history. We are an Enlightenment nation that was specifically constructed in such a way as to allow free thought and free expression and keep the church and state in separate spheres.

As such, history itself stands against the would-be Christianizers. The problem, though, is that history is far less permanent than we'd like to believe. Accounts of history are sometimes wrong, sometimes lost, and sometimes simply fade from memory. It's also extremely possible to create and push a wholly wrong accounting of history and, in effect, create the past whole-cloth. This is what much of Orwell's 1984 was about. It's what much of Huxley's Brave New World was about. It's what much of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was about.

Those who control information control the future. Which means that for anyone whose agenda is damaged by reality, reality itself must be re-shaped. The only way to do that in a social sciences setting is to re-make history itself in to your own desired image.

As such, this is a troubling and potentially dangerous situation. On some level it's far, far more unsettling than their attacks against science. Science, if lost, can be re-discovered. History, once lost, is gone forever.

This is what happens when we let our educational system be guided by dentists from College Station and real estate agents from Beaumont.  It’s what happens when we hand over our Boards of Education to morons driven by ideals, partisan politics, and a misplaced desire to “stand up to the experts.”

If we lose our history we lose ourselves.

If we lose Thomas Jefferson we lose America.  It was his ideals that drove this nation to explicitly avoid religious entanglement and drove it toward greatness.  That’s why the Texas Board of Education hates Thomas Jefferson, even when their supporters quote him without even noticing the irony.


*Yeah.  I used Wikipedia.  It’s late, I’m lazy, and the Wiki article is properly cited…


linkmaster2010 said...

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Michael Mock said...

Wow. Comment spam. And so prompt, too...

I've been trying my best to ignore this issue, mainly because it drives me to a nearly-homicidal frenzy - and that's bad for my blood pressure.

Sure would be nice if Mr. Norris would join us back here in the real world, though.

Geds said...

Wha? You don't think linkmaster up there is bringing thoughtful, cogent points to the discussion? How dare you question someone's integrity on the internet? How dare you, sir?

Actually, though, I'm not entirely sure that ol' Chuck was ever in the real world with the rest of us. I mean, he's got that celebrity bubble thing. Plus he's got the Christian bubble. And the Texas bubble.

Besides, this is the man who wrote a book about an internet meme made up of fact facts about him. And apparently decided to use it as a marketing or evangelism tool or something.

Assuming he was ever not, I believe Chuck is beyond help.

Big A said...

As a general rule of thumb, I prefer Chuck Norris stay as far away from me as possible, on any level.

Geds said...

I generally do, too. But then someone at Dispatches pointed out that he'd quoted Thomas Jefferson in support of removing Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum and I just had to go and see the train wreck.

fool for beautiful words said...

As I read more and more news like this from the USA, I wonder where this is going, as I plan to move there some time in the future.

I'll have to look into this matter seriously, since if I wanted to live in a country controlled by superstition (I mean the one and only true faith TM), and fundamentalistic morons, I could simply move some hundreds of miles to the east instead of thousands to the west.