Film Reviews

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.

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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Peter Vonder Haar is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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