Texas's elected state board of education, back in March, had the audacity to instruct Texas book publishers as to the need for more philosophically conservative standards in the social studies curriculum. The Texas market is so large that textbook publishers generally take what Texas dishes out and put it appreciatively to their lips. The content of a textbook tailored for Texas can influence the content of a textbook adopted in, good heavens, Vermont or New Jersey. This makes the proceedings vital, not to say controversial.
When did I know the board had done essentially the right thing? The moment I picked up the Dallas Morning News and drank in the musings of a columnist who was, well, let's just say beside herself.
First, this lady's comparison of the board members to "your crazy great-uncle who thinks Martians are spying on him through a hole in the attic." Then the weedwhacker buzz of indignation: "embarrass us, humiliate us," "underqualified ideologues," "same old blowhard talking points," "indoctrination camp," "idiotic nitpicking."
Then there was the columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, loath to be outdone in the indignation sweepstakes: "usual antics," "slashing and burning," "demonstration of demagoguery, arrogance, ignorance."
Ah, but the battlefield was a wide one, extending thousands of miles eastward. Thomas Frank, in a Wall Street Journal column, took primly disapproving notice. The New York Times editorial page, in an offering headlined, "Rewriting History in Texas," saw evidence of a "disturbing intervention by the board's Republican majority into educational decisions best left to the teachers and scholars who have toiled for almost a year to produce the new curriculum standards."
All this against the backdrop of the national campaign to pry open America's gullet for purposes of shoving down it the Obama plan for takeover of the health care industry! Talk about "arrogance." A different kind, nonetheless, coming from a different point on the ideological compass.
It was ever thus with "progressive" commentators on...oh, practically anything you could think of. Pushback against instances of liberal insight and understanding is barbaric, got that? Conservative push-backers are typically yahoos if not non-Harvard-educated morons and creationists. Especially from the state that gave us George W. Bush.
No doubt the 10 Republican state board of education members who pressed the revised standards over the opposition of five Democrats sensed what was coming their way, once the discussion ended. They did it their way anyway. Hooray! Them there fellers, as we Texas yahoos conventionally say, separating the wisp of hay from the gap in our front teeth...them folks done a right smart of good. "We are adding balance," explained the state board's chairman, Dr. Don McLeroy, who unfortunately lost his renomination battle this spring to a soi-disant, non-embarrassing moderate. "...Academia is skewed too far to the left."
Is it ever! The U.S. educational establishment is so firmly in the hands of, shall we say, the progressive element that it's astounding these folk could feel tetchy and put upon. Yet they do. The problem they have is that, whereas their sort control the classroom and the faculty lounge, conservative voters rear their heads a couple of times a year, electing to the state school board people who don't believe, reflexively, that Earl Warren or Robert Kennedy or even Barack Obama was God's gift to the national intellect. Or that homosexuality and heterosexuality equate to each other. Or that we have to keep God off public premises lest He contaminate the unpersuaded.
THE SBOE'S WORK COMES comes in for a hard time from liberals because it goes against the liberal grain. Here and there the SBOE may have pushed unduly hard. One headline-making story had to do with the board's rejection of a proposal to highlight the presence of a relatively small number of Mexicans who stood alongside the Texicans and Tennesseans at the Alamo. I myself wouldn't have a hard time with that concession, especially in light of the state's huge and growing Mexican/Hispanic presence. Still, this wasn't, for liberal commentators, the truly combustible matter. There was -- supposedly -- worse.
For instance, the board's vote to change the term "capitalism" to "free enterprise system" in the teaching of economics. Guess why. Because of the liberal propensity to disparage people who take an idea or an opportunity and blow it up into a company, with payrolls, benefit plans, yes, and profits. Liberals take corporate guilt money for their foundations, but basically they don't like the idea of profit. They think, deep down, the government should decide who gets what -- as with health care. The term "free enterprise" nicely and fittingly adorns our economic system. Why not use it as a protective device against, among others, liberal columnists?
Moreover, in the future, Texas demands textbook consideration of the intellectual achievements of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek -- a timely demand, indeed, what with the resurgence in the Obama era of Keynesian-Krugmanite-redistributionist economics.
Naturally, liberal indignation soared stratospherically when the board got around to matters religious. The board decided that textbooks should make clear that strict separation of church and state was not the Founders' original design but rather a conceit of Thomas Jefferson's. Said one board member, David Bradley, with admirable pugnacity as well as accuracy: "I reject the notion of the left of a constitutional separation of church and state. I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution."
We all know what a successful attack on the separationist gospel could entail -- entry into the schoolroom of the controversial notion that the Founding Fathers might have had some regard for God, or the Supreme Being, or whatever. Which they did, in fact, albeit in more nuanced degree than the heat of debate leads some on the "religious right" to suggest or proclaim. If the Founding Fathers weren't Bible-thumpers-Diarmaid MacCulloch, the English church historian, in a new book calls the religion of their day "low temperature" -- still they entertained respect for Christianity, especially as a prop of public virtue and morality.
Sorting it all out, as to meaning and intensity, can daunt in the face of secular liberal assumptions that religion is better understood as a divisive factor in public affairs (think evolution) than as a foundation for understanding, and acting upon, the human condition. The liberal assault on supernatural religion is perhaps the preeminent feature of modern times. That the public schools, where, in my own time, brief nondenominational prayer was an unexceptional feature of particular school days, should acknowledge the religious spirit is just too much for conscientious liberal commentators to bear.
Other board-prescribed changes concern the perceived liberal tilt in the teaching and explication of history. The board majority wanted to ensure treatment of the late 20th-century conservative movement that produced the Reagan revolution. So also members wanted it made clear that Republicans supported civil rights legislation in the '60s and that the Black Panthers preached and practiced a gospel of violence. On "McCarthyism," the board wanted attention given the post-Cold War documentation (through the Venona papers) of Soviet espionage in the United States. In other words, contrary to received liberal gospel, Sen. Joe McCarthy wasn't 100 percent off his rocker.
I SUPPOSE ONE MIGHT CALL this sort of thing micro-management of information -- the stuff that inspires liberal charges that the state board of education is bent on nothing less than "indoctrination" of innocent students. The truth is much larger and more various. It has to do with the nature of post-1960s modern society -- its consensus-less nature, its domination in large degree by strident relics of the counterculture who didn't like America in the '60s and haven't developed much warmer feelings about it since then.
The public schools I myself attended in the 1950s reflected a general sort of agreement as to what was good -- e.g., America, the American tradition, the West, hard work, freedom...and God. Not God last of all; rather, as sort of a unitive element in our national deliberations and activities. We didn't argue as much in those days as we argue now. I can tell you because I was there. It was nice. You needed no state boards of education to keep things nice. You certainly do now.
Americans, as anybody with one eye can see, no longer agree on the purposes of nation-hood, far less those of public education. We battle incessantly over those purposes, as the schools grow worse and worse: to the point some wonder, who cares, all the smart people are going to decamp anyway. Ironically, as the public schools extrude more and more of the best and brightest, liberals grow more and more jealous of their present ascendancy over the schools, less and less trustful of calls to strengthen curriculum and performance.
We're not having down here in the Lone Star State and elsewhere an argument about church-state separation so much as we're going through a family feud over the meaning of the new America -- including the vital question, does it need and should it have a new meaning?
My fellow morons and yahoos in Texas, to extrapolate from returns in most, not all, state school board elections, find the old values, the old principles still worthy of respect and observance. Not so the liberals among us, who claim offense at the idea that public schools should operate in any sense along the lines of 50 years ago. Maybe they're right. Even then the schools were far from ideal. Do we improve them, all the same, by belching fire and vengeance when conservatives say, wait, hold on, let's have a little balance in how we present the story of all our lives?
Testy, testy, these liberals who appear to hope all conservatives would just quit the public schools entirely if they don't like what goes on there. Maybe some day they'll get their wish.