erik lundegaard

The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries (2012)


Don McLeroy, the Bryan, Tex., dentist and young-Earth creationist who served on the Texas State Board of Education from 1998 to 2010, including a stint as its controversial chair from 2007 to 2009, is a genial, garrulous boob. Bald, moustached, and portly, he has a “gee whiz” quality to him. His face often resolves itself into a self-satisfied smile after he makes what he thinks is a telling point at BOE meetings, but mostly his smile is open and unaffected. He tends to preach his creationist doctrine to those who can’t answer back—dental patients with tubes in their mouths; Sunday School kids at Grace Bible Church—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it. “Were there dinosaurs on the Ark?” he asks the kids, then answers his own question. “Sure there were!” He’s the kind of man who likes to answer his own questions.

He’s also the man most responsible for the recent rightward shift in our nation’s textbooks—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it.

“We want to make sure our children are taught good, solid American history,” he says to a phalanx of reporters during Scott Thurman’s documentary, “The Revisionaries.” He believes that evolution is bunk, that the Earth is 10,000 years old, and that history and science experts don’t know what they’re talking about. “Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts!” he says during a speech at a Texas Tea Party convention. To applause.

So how did McLeroy, and the people of Bryan, Tex., who kept voting him into office, get to decide the standards for our nation’s textbooks?

Basically: Publishers craft their textbooks to the standards of the biggest buyers, and Texas is currently the biggest buyer. According to a University of Texas study, between 45 and 85 percent of classrooms use Texas state textbooks.

“The Revisionaries” is mostly a character study. If you come in knowing, as I did, something of the power and the cultural make-up of the Texas SBOE, you come away knowing faces, and places, and a little more about the debate itself.

You learn there are 15 board members. They sit in high-backed chairs. There are two black members and one Hispanic member but the board is mostly dominated by white conservative Christians like McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer and teacher at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, who believes, among other things, 1) the founding fathers created a Christian nation; 2) government should be guided by the Bible; 3) public education is a “deceptive tool of perversion”; and 4) the establishment of public schools is unconstitutional. And she’s helping decide on the standards for those public schools.

There are progressives, or at least non-reactionaries, such as Ron Wetherington, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University (i.e., an expert), and Kathy Miller, the no-nonsense president of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization fighting religious-right initiatives. They have their say. But every progressive step forwards seems to involve two culturally conservative steps back.

The doc opens with a SBOE debate on whether to continue talking about “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. It’s voted down but a moment later a new amendment is added to include “all sides” of the debate, which, from a scientific perspective, is meaningless. But that passes.

In 2009, the Texas legislature removes McLeroy from his post as chair of the SBOE. Yay! But this simply frees him to offer amendment after amendment to the social studies standards. Boo! We get a flurry of them: that Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics”; that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” in the 1980s. At one point, in a laugh-out loud moment, McLeroy suggests eliminating the phrase “hip-hop” and inserting the words “country music.”

Unfortunately, too much of this debate is without context. What do the textbooks say now? What did they say 10 years ago? Twenty? What did they say when I was growing up? I seem to remember, as I got older, learning that what I’d learned in, say, elementary school, was a simplification or outright fabrication: George Washington and the cherry tree and Abe Lincoln walking a mile in the snow and the sole heroism of Paul Revere’s ride. How necessary are these simplifications? Is there a danger in them? There’s something to be said for learning the standards before taking apart the standards, but are our textbooks ultimately too anodyne to foster curiosity and a thirst for true knowledge? Do they instead foster a desire for myth and absolutes? Is that the good, solid American history McLeroy wants taught?

The great unspoken in the doc is that textbooks have always been dull beasts. I was a kid who actually liked school, but even I groaned with boredom when textbooks were opened. How do we make sure our kids don’t groan with boredom?

Also unspoken: What McLeroy wants to do with the science standards is the opposite of what he wants to do with the social studies standards. He wants to foster doubt about the theory of evolution, and he wants to foster certainty about American exceptionalism. Can’t someone ask which he prefers: doubt or certainty? Can’t someone suggest that we do to Ronald Reagan what he wants to do to Charles Darwin? Talk about “strengths and weaknesses”? Give “all sides”?

Moot point: By the end of the doc, McLeroy is gone, at least from the SBOE, because he finally loses an election by 400-some votes; but he keeps popping up elsewhere: on “The Colbert Report,” in the pages of USA Today. And others have picked up his SBOE mantle and are carrying it forward. To where? That’s the key. In 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, a product of Texas public schools, asked, “Is our children learning?” Now we have to ask, “What is they learning?”

“The amount of power I have,” McLeroy says at one point, referring to his chairmanship of the Texas State Board of Education, “boggles my mind.”

Ours, too.


—June 6, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard