Monday, March 15, 2010

Jefferson v. Board of Education

In the last few days, all the left-leaning political blogs I read have had stories about how the Texas Board of Education has recently made changes to the Social Studies curriculum to make it conform to a social and religious conservative perspective. This is not new: since the beginning of the year, the board has made over one hundred changes in this respect. Ten of the fifteen people on the board comprise a solid conservative bloc that has introduced and ratified such changes as dropping the suggestion that Japanese internment in WWII was motivated in part by racism; teaching that the constitution does not enact a separation of church and state; introducing a defense of McCarthyism because "there were some communists who were discovered"; teaching that sexual identity, eating disorders and rape are a matter of "choice"; and requiring that students learn about "positive" things like "Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association."

One of the changes that went through most recently is at once the most puzzling and most revealing. The headline at Think Progress reads "Texas Board of Education Cuts Thomas Jefferson out of its Textbooks." Upon further investigation, what was "cut" was a reference to Jefferson in the context of Enlightenment thought. The original standard in the social studies curriculum was to "explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present." The amended now directs teachers to "explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone."

So while I have to assume that Think Progress is being a bit misleading and that Thomas Jefferson still resides in social studies textbooks in some form, this change is nevertheless interesting and wants parsing. For one thing, though the amended version seems more or less the same as the original, minus Jefferson and plus Calvin, Aquinas and Blackstone. However, what is significant is what is what else is elided in the revision: namely, references to the Enlightenment and political revolution.

That conservatives would seek to throw Jefferson out of the boat is odd, to say the least. The Founding Fathers of the U.S. constitution, especially the resonant names of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison, tend reliably to make their way into American political argument on both sides of the ideological coin to lend rhetorical weight; liberals and conservatives and everyone in between remake the Founders in their own image again and again for the simple reason that they stand as a key touchstone of American political discourse signifying all that is positive and exceptional about the U.S.

Hence, it is rather puzzling that the conservative faction on the Texas Board of Education would elide Jefferson rather than refashion him in a way that lets them claim him as one of their own. A New York Times article about these changes suggests that Jefferson was not popular among the conservative on the board as he was the one responsible for the phrase "separation of church and state"—and indeed, much energy seems to have been specifically devoted to erasure of that idea. One board member declared that "I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state," and a subsequent amendment introduced to explore how "the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others" was firmly voted down.

However, the rejection of Jefferson in favour of Aquinas et al has a more pernicious element than the church and state falsehood being peddled. The facile reason offered for this change is that Jefferson was himself merely influenced by the other philosophers listed, as if he offered no substance of his own but merely parroted his predecessors. Someone with even a casual familiarity with late-eighteenth century history and philosophy however will know that Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the American Revolution more generally had a seismic impact on European politics—Jefferson was not merely a conduit for other thinkers, but was a brilliant philosopher in his own right whose words and ideas resonated through the storming of the Bastille and the tumultuous revolutionary spirit of nineteenth-century Europe. More importantly however, Jefferson was very much a product of his time, a product of the fundamentally secular Age of Reason. The rewriting of the above educational standard is, more than anything else, a rewriting of the specific historical context that made the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the United States itself possible. Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Jefferson comprise a continuum of thought that broke from the religious traditions informing Aquinas and Calvin. The rewritten standard not only drops the Enlightenment down the memory hole, it tacitly suggests continuity where there is breach.

The substitution of Blackstone for Jefferson is a particularly deft move—Blackstone, a prominent British judge in the mid-eighteenth century, wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England. This treatise was effectively the legal standard in pre-Revolutionary America and which is still frequently invoked by the U.S. Supreme Court as a resource for understanding the legal and intellectual contexts of the nation's founding. Again however, this substitution suggests false continuity, for in the rewriting of the standard we lose reference to revolution, American or otherwise. Further, rather than citing a genuinely revolutionary thinker like Jefferson, we instead have a conservative jurist writing in and about a nation without any formal separation of church and state.

It is odd that the American Revolution itself would be effectively deleted from the standard by a group of vocal conservatives, especially at a moment when so much of the American right seeks to identify itself with the revolutionary fervour of the Boston Tea Party, and Jefferson's admonition about the Tree of Liberty being watered by the blood of patriots and tyrants adorns many a tee shirt and hand-lettered sign at rallies. I suppose one could sigh and shrug and chalk it up to the increasing incoherence of the U.S. right wing today, but it is more deeply troubling when that incoherence finds its way off the 24/7 news cycle and into the pages of curricula.

Of course, my reading of the change to the educational standard grants a subtlety of thought that those responsible for it probably don't deserve. To wit, faction leader Dr. Dan McLeroy (the title of "doctor," I discovered while researching this, refers to his degree in dentistry) said of his methodology in shaping curriculum, "We are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last 20 years because he lowered taxes." Presumably McLeroy means the economy up to but not including autumn 2008 and since; and the last time I checked, Reagan might have preached the gospel of lower taxes, but after his initial cut in 1981, systematically raised taxes for pretty much the rest of his tenure. That I would like to see pointed out in Texas social studies textbooks, but I suppose I shouldn't hold my breath.

1 comment:

Zari said...

Completely OT but IMPORTANT!
The various links to vote for your Pepsi art project are not working today (17 Mar) and we can't vote!

I'll keep trying throughout today.
Zari (from Nik-at-Nite LOST Blog)