Most people know that Texas politics are a little out of control — the Democratic state representatives did run away to Oklahoma in order to avoid arrest for leaving session in response to an unfair redistricting — but most people don’t think to look to the school board as a battleground for ideologies and religious radicalism.
Then again, it’s Texas and anything conservative and crazy is possible, especially with regards to education.
This Friday, the Texas State Board of Education will take a final vote on the proposed 11 biology textbooks and the chance that all 11 will gain the State Board of Education members’ approval is slim to none.
The Texas State Board of Education is an organization dominated by the radical right. In the last two years, with the help of campaign contributions from ultra-conservative donors, right-wing board members have spent as much as $200,000 and outspent moderate opponents by a six to one margin.
In 1995, the Texas Legislature passed reforms in an effort to curtail ideological pressure to censor certain information from textbooks. Now, the Board may only reject textbooks based on “physical specifications, essential knowledge and skills elements, and factual errors” (A.G. Opinion No. DM-424).
Despite these legal restrictions, the Texas State Board of Education continues to ban certain textbooks. In 2001, it banned the only Advanced Placement environmental science textbook because far-right groups saw it as being too pro-environment, anti-Christian and anti-free enterprise. And in 2002, significant changes were made to social studies books based on the radical right’s objections during the hearings of 1996. According to testimony files at the Texas Education Association, the radical right opposed books with a perceived “overkill of emphasis on cruelty to slaves” and called those with an “overemphasis on civil rights” unpatriotic. Additionally, pictures of the “American Family” were required to include two parents and both were required to be Caucasian.
The debate continues to rage, this year over biology textbooks. Since 1991, Texas state law has mandated the teaching of evolution in biology books. However, in 1993, the radical right lobbied for evolution to be eliminated from textbooks. And in 1997, the State Board of Education considered replacing the books with new ones that did not even mention evolution. The proposal was voted down by a slim margin.
Now the extremists claim that the textbooks are factually incorrect because they are not critical enough of evolutionary theory. The main opponents come from Discovery Institute, which is the nation’s leading supporter of “intelligent design,” the notion that life is far too complex to have occurred without some unknown, divine intervention, also known as the “intelligent being.”
Advocates of teaching evolution see the accusation that these textbooks ignore the “weaknesses” of evolution as just clever hogwash. These objections mark the religious right’s shift to a more subtle approach to impose religion-based views under the veil of science.
Despite the absurdity of such arguments, it looks like the radical right, which controls nine out of twelve seats on the Board, will win again. And sadly, this problem is not confined to just my wildly ridiculous home state
According to the Texas Freedom Network, Texas is the nation’s second largest textbook consumer, allocating as much as $570 million per year, which gives textbook publishers financial incentive to acquiesce to the changes demanded by a small, but vocal group of extremists. More problematic is that the textbooks for Texas serve as a model for other states.
And it’s not just a problem in the United States. All over the world, textbooks are laden with ideological slants intended to shape the minds of entire generations. For instance, according to the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, Palestinian Authority schoolbooks use a map of the Middle East that ignores the existence of Israel and has replaced it by a state called “Palestine”. In Japan, textbooks wash over Japan’s responsibility for atrocious war activities. It describes the Rape of Nanking, where over 300,000 people were killed, as an “incident” in which “many” Chinese were killed. Only one of the eight books approved in 2002 mentions the sex slaves, who were brutally taken and abused from other Asian countries.
Even the United States’ government understands the value of textbooks as a medium for propaganda. During the Cold War, the United States spent millions on Afghan textbooks that were filled with violent images in an attempt to spur resistance to the Soviet Union. Children were taught how to count with illustrations of tanks, missiles and land mines.
Yet when Afghan schools reopened last spring, in response to the demands from non-governmental international organizations, the United States supplied new textbooks that promoted peace and tolerance.
Ideologies belong in editorials, not textbooks. Children need to develop their own political beliefs, and in order to do so they need to have all of the facts and ideas on the pages. We must be vigilant against the use of textbooks that are tainted by one extremist group’s ideological underpinnings.
Hopefully there will be a “regime change” in Texas, one that doesn’t require collateral damage, but massive localized political activism. Even if these 11 biology textbooks escape unscathed, the fact remains that 12 members, nine of whom are financially supported by a radically conservative minority, can decide what information our children receive.
The State Board of Education needs to be told: Don’t Mess with Textbooks.
Della Sentilles is a sophomore in Silliman College.