In 1999, when the Kansas Board of Education, under the control of fundamentalist extremists, removed the teaching of evolution from the science curriculum in public schools, Kansas became the object of national and international ridicule for having caved in to zealots and know-nothings. But the biggest uproar actually came from business leaders, who recognized that the economic viability of the state depended on the availability of credible public education. Businesses don’t relocate to or invest in communities where ignoramuses set the educational curriculum. The Kansas Board reversed itself within a year.
Too bad Texas hasn’t learned from the Kansas experience. For the economic future of Texas is now under attack from similar extremists who, once again, are trying to inject politics and sectarian religious views into the selection of textbooks for schools in Texas.
Consider “the Mel Gablers” of Longview, whose Web site (http://members.aol.com/TxtbkRevws/about.htm) provides the primary ammunition for Texas extremists looking to censor school texts. The Gablers are candid: “We are a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas.” Translated into plain language: They censor textbooks for material offensive to conservative Christians, regardless of its accuracy.
The Gablers, who have no scientific or academic qualifications, set out pages and pages of “criteria” for the teaching of history, constitutional law and science, criteria that would get them laughed out of a meeting of real historians, lawyers or scientists. They share the common antipathy of the far right toward evolutionary biology, whose scientific validity is nowhere in doubt outside the coterie of religious extremists. Their conception of constitutional history emphasizes the understanding of state and federal power circa 1800, ignoring the complete transformation of our constitutional structure in the wake of the Civil War, a fact familiar to every first-year law student. And despite their enthusiasm for free markets, their understanding of economics is simplistic. “Private ownership fostered development and conservation of natural resources,” they intone, although every undergraduate economics major has studied the “tragedy of the commons,” the inability of regimes of private ownership to provide for the protection of common resources. (That’s why we have national parks, after all!) “Market competition best limited discrimination and expanded minority opportunity,” the Gablers report, not mentioning that it was government intervention, not markets, that created opportunities when the minorities were African- or Mexican-American.
The list of simple-minded, one-sided or flat-out inaccurate statements from the Gabler site could go on and on.
Unfortunately, they’re not alone in their attempt to politicize public education. Peggy Venable is the Texas director of the right-wing Citizens for a Sound Economy, or CSE, which endorses the Gabler criteria in its own efforts to censor textbooks. This self-appointed monitor of what the CSE Web site calls “accuracy in academia in Texas schools” follows the Gablers in thinking that global warming is a “controversial” issue. Indeed, she declared in March 2000 that, “The Kyoto Protocol [on global warming] will cost American consumers and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars for the sake of something that the world’s best scientists can’t agree is a problem.”
Yet well before Venable spoke, 1,000 scientists working under the auspices of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Association had already issued a report confirming that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing global warming. Since then, a committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences — made up of the nation’s most distinguished scientists, including multiple Nobel laureates — released a report that reached the same conclusion.
Despite the fact that Venable’s understanding of global warming was medieval, she and her allies succeeded in having science textbooks rewritten to downplay the seriousness of the problem.
A front-page story in The New York Times on June 29 called the nation’s attention to the right-wing special-interest groups who set educational policy in Texas. This increased attention is sure to scare off the businesses and their highly educated workers that Texas needs to compete. Highly educated professionals won’t work in a state where the school textbooks their children use can’t discuss scientific findings about global warming or have to pander to the bigotries and prejudices of a small but vocal sector of the population.
There is an obvious solution: Just as then-Gov. George W. Bush championed local control for school districts, we must have local control over textbooks. The influence of the well-funded extremists is exaggerated because they have only one target: the Texas State Board of Education, which approves textbooks for the entire state. But if they have to go community to community pressing their censorship campaign, they are doomed to the defeat they so richly deserve.
Leiter is Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law, professor of philosophy and director of the Law & Philosophy Program at the University of Texas at Austin.