Wednesday, March 24, 2010

John Thornton: Long Odds on Texas Education

Long Odds on Texas Education
by John Thornton
Seven Stories Press

So on March 13, conservatives in the Texas State Board of Education managed to radically rewrite state-mandated curricula for the social sciences. They made the following changes:

* The US government is no longer to be described as "democratic," but exclusively as "constitutional."

* Students are no longer required to learn that the Constitution prohibits the government from establishing one religion as superior to others. Separation between church and state as a guiding principle of the government is no longer to be emphasized, or necessarily mentioned.

* Thomas Jefferson is out as an Enlightenment thinker, replaced by dominionist Christian go-to figure John Calvin.

* The curriculum is no longer allowed to refer to sex and gender as social constructs -- otherwise, students might be exposed to "transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else."

* The mention that Tejanos fought at the Alamo is to be omitted. (This is a big deal if you come from Texas and had to learn about the Alamo literally every year of your life until you were 16 -- it's a different Alamo without Mexican people in the picture.)

* Sociology students are no longer required to consider the possibility that American societal institutions are racist by design.

* The rise of the Moral Majority, the fight against the ERA, and Newt Gingrich's Contract With America are now required subjects in any history class, to be taught as significant cultural movements of the 1980s. Hip-hop, on the other hand, is not to be referred to as a significant cultural movement of the 1980s. (Chuck D's "Fight The Power" is another thing we never learned about in Texas schools.)

At least they got rid of the requirement to include the idea, when teaching the civil rights movement, that the movement was ultimately a failure, leading to "unrealistic expectations for equal outcomes."

I'm a product of the Texas public education system. I didn't know about the existence of the Stonewall Riots until I was 23. There's no reason it should have been so late: I was interested in modern LGBT rights debates, had read things like Confessions of a Mask and The Immoralist and far too many William Burroughs books. I knew that logically, there had to have been some signal moment at which LGBT people popped into visibility as a viable political force. Still, I didn't know about the existence of the Stonewall Riots until I was 23. Similarly, I didn't realize that our neighborhood's name for pick-up football -- "Smear the Queer" -- referred to the act of beating up a gay person, and when Matthew Shepard was talked about at all, it was as an entry point to the argument that hate crime laws involved the government violating free speech.

Texas, our Texas, huh?

What's so chilling about all of this to me is that it would literally never have occurred to me that events like Stonewall -- or Compton's Cafeteria, or the pie in Anita Bryant's face -- had happened, that LGBT people had actually won their acknowledgment by society through violent resistance, rather than waiting around patiently for their turn. I only learned about these events basically by chance: I read enough and was interested in enough that sooner or later, statistically, I was going to hit that data point.

So what about people who don't boost their statistical chances of learning things in that way? All you've got is your basic public education, and the off-chance that something you're professionally or personally interested in -- for a lot of my old classmates, computer science or mechanical engineering professionally, movies involving car racing or interplanetary war personally -- will combine with some knowledge that an oppressed group in America stood up and fought back and won some kind of right, that your government was designed to work in certain ways. If that alchemy doesn't hit, public education is it for the rest of your life.

An old classmate and I were arguing shortly after 9/11. He's since become an industrial engineer, a good one, and a born-again Christian who advocated seizing "suspects" without trial and using torture to extract information in order to "win the War on Terror." "What about the Fourteenth Amendment?" I asked. "What about the Eighth Amendment?"

"There are parts of the Constitution that are like rotten wood," he said. "They deserve to fall away." On the wall behind him was a poster of the Statue of Liberty giving the finger.

You have to forget everything you know about how the government works to say a thing like that. And if those lessons had never been there in the first place? If they're not required elements in a curriculum increasingly loaded with required No Child Left Behind test prep taking up two days out of every five, taught by underpaid instructors with zero professional stake in going beyond the strict letter of the Board of Education's law?

I'm not talking here about random violent rednecks working in gas stations in the Great Dark Regions of North America. The problem with education in the South has to do with a class of reasonably elite people -- technologists, businessmen, even teachers themselves -- who will not seek out knowledge for its own sake, and who will grow up with only a remote statistical chance of learning that violent resistance to the status quo is not only a part of our history, but a desirable and necessary part. These are the people who start tea parties. These are the people who donate to the Palin 2012 campaign. These are the people that the Board of Education wants to generate more of.

So what do we do about this mess in the Lone Star State?

I wouldn't have known about Russell Means or Wounded Knee, either -- neither were on the standard Texas educational curriculum at the time, to my knowledge -- had it not been for an excellent teacher, Mrs. Walkup, who taught my ninth grade U.S. History.

"From now on as you move out into the world," she said on the first day of class, "you need to arm yourself intellectually against people. Everyone you meet has a political agenda, whether they know it or not, and they're going to try to influence you toward believing in that agenda. You need to be able to recognize that, and to avoid being taken in."

"How do we know you're not trying to push an agenda on us?" asked a student.

"You don't," she said.

And for all her virtues, all her willingness to talk about COINTELPRO, AIM and everything else, her agenda never included Stonewall.

This kind of local resistance is nice work, as a student, if you're lucky enough to get it on your course schedule -- and lucky enough to live in socioeconomic circumstance that permit the hiring and retention of such a teacher. But for ten years, Texas students are going to have to depend exclusively on that kind of luck for any kind of balanced view of the world.

And, of course, they'll rely on textbook publishers, who are now faced with a choice: do I tailor my books for national distribution and sale to the newly-corrupted Texas curriculum? Or do I take the long-term view that it is not a good thing to have a generation of technologists and businessmen who grow up without knowing that if a minority group wants something, they generally have to fight the power for it?

As a textbook publisher, do I lose money by taking that long-term view, and is it worth it? How long are those odds, in the end?

John Thornton is an editor at Seven Stories Press.

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