Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The myths Texas wants us to learn

Last week Democracy Now interviewed author/filmmaker John Sayles, which I found quite fascinating. I remember viewing “Brother From Another Planet” in a college film studies class, and while it appeared to be a very low-budget production, the story did have an interesting allegorical point to make: A rather silent black man (Joe Morton) turns-up in town who has seemingly superhuman skills; he is soon followed by men who want to take custody of him. The man is an escaped slave from another world; the ironic thing about it is that this slave has powers far greater than any human, including white. Sayles’ other films of note are “Matewan,” about one of the many violent confrontations between labor and mining companies, “Eight Men Out,” concerning the “Black Sox” scandal, and “Lone Star.” This latter film in part examined the myths that Texans hold dear, particularly those concerning its history. In one scene there is a confrontation between white parents who want their version of history taught in school, white-washed of the ugly parts, while a Latino teacher insists that ignoring the past sins of racial discrimination—including the explicit desire of Texas’ mostly Southern immigrants to achieve “independence” from Mexico in order to establish a slave state—only promises that current acceptance of discrimination will continue.

“Lone Star” turned-out to be prescient in its evaluation of the issue of maintaining historical myth. The latest Texas curriculum standards passed in 2010 has been criticized as inaccurate by historians, and by civil rights groups who have called for a federal review of what they called the curriculum's deliberately discriminatory intentions. The new texts ban the mention of Thomas Jefferson and refers to the country as a “constitutional republic,” but being politicized is just the tip of this Texas-size iceberg. The input and imprint of the “Christian” and “ultra” conservative bloc—inside and outside the Texas State Board of Education deliberations room—is evident everywhere. While some educators have noted that the English and science curriculum are now infected with right-wing politics, it was the social studies portion that created the greatest controversy. The hostile environment was such that Democratic board members—outnumbered 10-5—simply walked out of those proceedings at one point. And it wasn’t just “enlightened” ideas that were nixed, or the “Christian ethic” emphasized, but a wholesale removal of references to non-Caucasians. So-called multicultural figures—a euphemism for minorities—were apparently deemed “un-American.” Efforts to include just one Latino of historical note by name were ignored (including Cesar Chavez, despite the pleading of one elderly man during a public hearing), and the expulsion of major civil rights figures was another “victory” for conservative extremists seeking to whitewash history.

One of the few “victories” the Democrats on the board scored was embarrassing enough Republicans to vote against a transparently racist attack against the civil rights movement, declaring that it promoted an “unrealistic expectations for equal outcomes.” Nevertheless, students armed with the new texts will no longer be required to discuss the effects of institutional racism in this country. One right-wing board member had complained that the current standards falsely suggested that it was often people from racial, ethnic, and religious groups who promoted the extension of political rights in America. “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society,” he fulminated. In other words, minorities can march against discrimination all they want, but only the white majority has the “right” to recognize their complaints and act on them, if they so choose. We have seen this concept in action in California and Washington, both “blue states” that passed anti-affirmative action referendums.

The new Texas history curriculum also attempts wholesale revisionism to resuscitate the images of formerly discredited right-wing figures like Joe McCarthy, and justifying the indiscriminate use of blacklisting. This is all just a part of the right’s attempt to rewrite and control history. The right has often been portrayed as the part of the ideological spectrum that has promoted race hatred, intolerance and jingoism—and rightly so; now was their chance to “correct” a percieved “imbalance” by polluting young minds with those very ideas in the guise of “learning.” It is as if modern day Nazis tried to rewrite history to put themselves back on the “right” side. The right has often and loudly complained that government and ideology has no place in school books; but since the state and not school districts purchase school texts, the curriculum is clearly tailored to appease the right-wing element that has controlled the state for decades. That element includes unapologetic creationists like Texas school board chair Don McElroy and board member Cynthia Dunbar, the latter who stated that “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”

Interestingly, the right-wing element supported the inclusion of Margaret Sanger in the text; Sanger is usually hailed as a feminist hero for her “pioneering” work on birth-control. The reason why she was being promoted by the extremists on the board’s right is the same reason why I think she is no “hero," but a racist: she is to be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics,” according to McElroy. Talk about ignoring history: I thought support for eugenics went out with the Nazis. But at least you can give him a black star for being honest about the racially-motivated intentions of the board's right-wing.

The curriculum board has thus not only infected the process with extreme politics, but with extreme arrogance—and ignorance. One right-wing board member stated that she was a proud Texan, and thought that Texas was superior to all other states; Texas A&M professor James Kracht added to the chest-beating, proclaiming that “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.” Thus tens of millions of students will be taught that global warming should not only be questioned, but they will be prodded to inquire into the “implications” of being led astray by scientists. Whatever happens is “God’s will,” and there is no point in doing anything about it—or vote for Republicans so they can do nothing for you. Many people decry the state of education today; the pompous Texas education board has if anything made it worse, by undercutting critical thinking and recognition of vital issues at every turn. Education is supposed to expand the mind, not contract it.

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