Texas, the textbook gorilla

The other New York Times Magazine article that I found interesting this weekend (following up on yesterday’s post) is about the Texas State Board of Education and its attempts to revise textbook standards for history teaching.

Texas is regularly in the headlines because of its heft as a textbook buyer. Its statewide education guidelines influence what will be available to the rest of the country, which becomes a frequent source of aid and comfort for creationism whenever the state’s biology education standards are revised.

It’s not biology this year, its history – but some similar conflicts have arisen. The main point of contention is the way to portray religion’s role in the early United States, and the article, by Russell Shorto, reviews some pertinent facts and opinions, and profiles the nationwide forces behind members of the Texas Board of Education.

IN 1801, A GROUP of Baptist ministers in Danbury, Conn., wrote a letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, congratulating him on his victory. They also had a favor to ask. Baptists were a minority group, and they felt insecure. In the colonial period, there were two major Christian factions, both of which derived from England. The Congregationalists, in New England, had evolved from the Puritan settlers, and in the South and middle colonies, the Anglicans came from the Church of England. Nine colonies developed state churches, which were supported financially by the colonial governments and whose power was woven in with that of the governments. Other Christians Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers and, of course, those of other faiths were made unwelcome, if not persecuted outright.

Nowadays people think that “disestablishmentarianism” is just an example of an inordinately long word to use in spelling bees. They don’t seem to remember meaning of the word, from the movement to disestablish State religions within the United States. A good nutshell version of the history is given by Olds (1994, who, as an aside, was mainly interested in whether the resulting “privatization” of religion could explain the high religious identification in the United States). The movement to disestablish churches was in part driven by Jeffersonians, and in part by churches themselves, which became more and more unwilling to cede doctrinal decisions to a public vote of their congregrations. Until disestablishment, people in these states were taxed to support the church.

Now, I’m betting that little historical episode isn’t part of many high school history curricula. I imagine students are still forced to learn about the Bank of the United States, going on around the same time, but how many of those history lessons even try to connect the concept to the Federal Reserve?

Anyway, the article is mainly interesting for its cast of characters, including perennial creationist board member Don McLeroy and frequent-flying Liberty University law professor and Texas board member Cynthia Dunbar. These people are able to demand extraordinary changes from publishers, supported as they are by an ersatz network of legal activists and foundations around the country. I think the article makes essential background to understanding the issues with evolution education.