The Revisionaries Explores the Texas Board of Education's Fight Against Science, History

The Revisionaries director Scott Thurman didn't set out to make a movie about the Texas State Board of Education's attempts to roll back scientific thought and rewrite the historical narrative of the United States. In the beginning, he was simply planning a short film about a local biology teacher, but Thurman became gradually and inexorably caught up in the political debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools. The rest, as they say, is focus-committee-approved history.

If you were under the impression that the theory of evolution enjoyed widespread acceptance as the most rigorously tested, scientifically respected explanation for the development of life on earth, you're probably living somewhere other than the United States. A recent poll showed that fewer than half of Americans believe human beings "developed from other species of animals" (next to last among Western countries, and only slightly ahead of Turkey). Enter the Texas SBOE. Following the 2006 elections, seven of the 15 seats on the board were held by conservative Republicans (with another member described as a "close ally"). This majority allowed the board to demand wording be added to school textbooks questioning the scientific consensus of evolution and reframing our nation's history to more strongly emphasize Christian principles.

"So what?" you might ask. "Who cares what a bunch of 10-gallon-hat-wearing Texans decide to teach their kids?" For starters, only a few of us wear hats. Second, in Texas, the state itself — not individual school districts — decides which textbooks can be bought. This makes Texas one of the largest markets for textbooks in the United States, with publishers naturally catering to the whims of their biggest buyers. In short, those Texans have an outsize power in setting textbook standards for the country.

Details

The Revisionaries

Directed by Scott Thurman.

The Revisionaries follows the board's most recent round of textbook-standards hearings, with the spotlight on then-board chairman Don McLeroy. McLeroy, a dentist by trade, is an avowed "young-earth creationist" and sees no conflict between his personal beliefs and his duties overseeing the science standards for millions of public-school students. His apparent befuddlement throughout the film, whether he's hearing testimony from state science teachers or being questioned on matters of evolutionary theory by opponents, would be amusing if the ramifications weren't so significant.

Both McLeroy and board ally Cynthia Dunbar, a law professor at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, are so unsubtle in their maneuvering it's hard to believe they were able to accomplish so much so easily. It isn't as if their efforts were unopposed, after all. Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller and Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor from Southern Methodist University, were among McLeroy's more stalwart opponents. Indeed, TFN was founded expressly to counter the influence of the religious right on the board.

Less time is given to opposing board members like Rick Agosto, a Democrat from San Antonio, and Bob Craig, a moderate Republican who occasionally attempts to stem the tide of madness. McLeroy even ends up in a tough GOP primary campaign against Thomas Ratliff, a rather humorless legislative consultant from Mount Pleasant who nevertheless supports an end to the politicization of public education.

Still, Dunbar successfully removes wording giving Thomas Jefferson credit for contributing to modern revolutionary thought — Jefferson, as Craig points out, only authored something called the Declaration of Independence. Dunbar also leads the effort to drop the requirement to teach students that the First Amendment prohibits the promotion of one religion over another. McLeroy even attempts to replace hip-hop music with country on a list of important cultural developments. In his and Dunbar's America, the Constitution is apparently a book of the New Testament and Chuck D. never existed.

And yet one of the most revealing aspects of The Revisionaries isn't watching McLeroy harangue his patients about Charles Darwin or hearing Dunbar lead a prayer for the Lord to "invade our schools." Rather, it's a mere footnote stating that in the 2010 GOP primary, voter turnout was 20 percent. The composition of the board is as much a result of voter apathy as it is the machinations of the religious right.

To a point, Thurman does an admirable job portraying McLeroy with some objectivity. The director's stated goal is to allow us to appreciate the "compassion and complexities of Don's character," but by the end of the film, the tenor of Thurman's coverage shifts perceptibly into the unsympathetic. Granted, there isn't an easy way to portray certain statements of McLeroy's in a favorable light. Example: "Somebody's got to stand up to the experts." But following the man as he attempts to demonstrate to his Sunday school class how easily all of earth's "critters" could fit into the ark (using sports cones on a soccer field for measurement) smacks of gratuitousness.

That said, the changes to textbook standards implemented during McLeroy's tenure on the board will remain in place until 2020. That's long enough for two full classes of Texas high school students to have received their education (or not) under McLeroy and Dunbar's influence. In that sense, maybe Thurman was too easy on the guy.

 
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4 comments
mcarrier420
mcarrier420

What makes TEXAS think they can rewrite history and scientific research? We learn from our mistakes from the past so we don't repeat them in the future, right? That is what I tell my children so the hate and misunderstandings don't hinder future progress. A lot of what is put into history books comes from what Texas allows in their books. How can we teach our future if we don't show them the true past?


CaptTu
CaptTu

@TFN tonight is sold out. Going tomorrow.

Creation_not_nutty
Creation_not_nutty

What is the scientific consensus on evolution?  That it most certainly happened, and that research has proven it time and time again?  Or is it that most scientists can only speak about proven things?

 

Honest scientists, when not feeling threatened, admit that our current evolutionary facts are only facts under the presumption of a natural origin for the diversity of life.  They know that science isn't the whole story!

 

So when talking about our current best scientific explanation for the origin of the diversity of life, good teachers will express how these facts are built!  They will let the kids know what is certain, compared with what can't be proved.

Gaunt
Gaunt

 @Creation_not_nutty What an absurd lie. But then, that is the fundamental basis of creationism isnt it? In order to even propose your absurd tripe, you need to first try and discredit (somehow) the monumental, multidisciplinary, planetwide scientific consensus on evolution. You need to somehow find a way to 'argue away' the fact that nearly every actual educated expert in any of the dozen related field in tens of thousands of universtities, research institutions and think tanks all around the globe are all somehow 'wrong'.You do that with lies and cowardly, baseless assertions. You accuse them all of being 'scared' (of what?). You assert that if they were asked honestly, they would all change their minds from their public pronouncements (a lie of such stunningly dishonest proportions it boggles the mind) You claim these evolutionists are 'persecuted' otherwise they would be creationists. Or you just claim a massive global conspiracy that somehow affects and controls tens of MILLIONS of experts worldwide.All complete, laughable lies. Young earth creationism isnt a valid opinion. It isnt a voice that should be heard. It isnt a reasonable alternative. Its nothing but holocaust denial, and the conspiracy theories the YECs spread are identical to those spread by holocaust deniers to explain why the entire world thinks THEY are insane.Anyone trying to teach YEC to children in a science classroom should be arrested for child abuse. 

 

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