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Culture wars in the classroom: The fight to revise textbooks in Texas gets scrutiny in PBS documentary

Culture wars in the classroom: The fight to revise textbooks in Texas gets scrutiny in PBS documentary

"The high school is no place to fight the culture wars," National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie Scott said during a heated session of the Texas State Board of Education, as recounted in The Revisionaries, a documentary that appeared on PBS' Independent Lens series Monday, January 28.

But recently, that's exactly where the battle has taken place.

The Revisionaries looks at the fight over rewriting teaching and textbook standards by the Texas board in 2009-11. It's an important topic because California and Texas dictate what goes in textbooks across the nation because of their sizeable student enrollments — 6.2 million and 5 million, respectively.

 With the influence of seven far-right Christian conservatives, the Texas board voted to require that science textbooks ask students to analyze and evaluate "all sides" of the theory of evolution. 

With the influence of seven far-right Christian conservatives, the Texas board voted to require that science textbooks ask students to analyze and evaluate "all sides" of the theory of evolution, including creationism.

Then the board tackled social studies, voting to redefine America as a “constitutional republic” instead of a democracy, replace capitalism with “free-enterprise system,” and downplay the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

The documentary follows former board chair Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist and avowed creationist who likes to discuss such issues with his patients while filling their cavities, and Cynthia Dunbar, a Houston-area attorney and author who teaches law at Liberty University and spearheaded many of the social studies changes in textbooks.

On the other side, Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller and Ron Wetherington, an SMU anthropology professor who notes "the mixture of ignorance and arrogance is a flammable mix," lead the fight against their arch-conservative foes.

All of this would be ripe for a parody (and in fact, segments featuring Steven Colbert are seen in the documentary a couple of times) if it weren't such a serious subject. While The Revisionaries appears to favor the side of scientific reasoning, McLeroy and Dunbar get plenty of air time to have their say, ultimately leaving the viewer to decide.

An update on the PBS website notes that in 2011, the Texas Legislature switched authority to order textbooks from the state board to individual school districts, which now control how they spend their almost $800 million on textbooks and other learning materials.

Even so, the documentary notes that textbook standards will not be reviewed again until 2020. And while the 2012 election brought about a more balanced state board, such down-ballot races usually draw light turnout and candidates with extreme views, so the fight is far from over.

The Revisionaries can be streamed on PBS.org.

Revisionaries, Kathy Miller
Kathy Miller, center, president of the Texas Freedom Network, protests proposed changes in textbooks in 2009. Courtesy of PBS
The Revisionaries, Cynthia Dunbar
Houston-area attorney Cynthia Dunbar pushed for changes in social studies books that downplayed Thomas Jefferson's contributions to the nation. Courtesy of PBS