Thursday, May 20, 2010

The ayes of Texas

Well, is there anything that Texans are too ashamed to do? Probably not. Judge fer yerself, podner:

An imminent vote on textbooks, will tell the tale about what's true and what kiddies' li'l ol' innocent ears are ready for. Apparently the ayes in the Texas schoolbook commission are all in favor of propaganda that for transparent political crassness make Soviet propaganda look downright amateurish.

Because Texas and California together dominate the school textbook market, decisions in these states about what to include in texts have long dominated the industry, and cannot be dismissed as just backwater doin's. If Texas sez Darwin wuz wrong, well then, podner, he was wrong! If there wuzn't any slav'ry in the US, then there wuzn't an' don' try sayin' ther wuz. Thomas Jefferson didn't exist. Capitalism is God's mandate (maybe Jesus said something to that effect in the Sermon on the Mount, though it seems the Message was rather the opposite). Senator McCarthy, a hero. And much, much more in the same vein.

Are we (or, at least, are they) in the age of science? Apparently not. A small group of us elitists who have the disgusting characteristic of having had at least some sort of education actually think truth in the factual world means something. We seem to be in the shrinking minority. Or perhaps our noble Lone Star friends are just worried about keeping the future-majority in check. One hates to look at world history to see what happened to other countries when they come under the sway of comparably enlightened people. It's happened many times before, and never had a good outcome.

We don't know how this will play out. Maybe enough parents, the literate ones in Texas, will say 'enough!' and will demand real education rather than propa-gation, and will stop or reverse the decision. Perhaps the textbook industry will show more spine than is in their bindings, and won't publish rubbish. Publish for the other states, with special Texas centerfolds (pinup pictures of local preachers) for the Lone Star students. Or maybe even local school districts south of the Pecos that are not controlled by cowpunchers will find a way to develop and use online texts with actual content. Or something sensible.

Even used teabags leftover from the Party rally would make better reading.

Actually, let's the rest of us lie low. Because if both California and Texas switch to the new enlightened texts, it will be a bonanza for us! Our kids will no longer have to compete with a huge contingent of Texan and Californian kids for admission to colleges, and for jobs.

Well, we actually have friends in Texas (and California). Most can even spell their own names. So we don't want to make blanket characterizations. We lived in Texas for a long time. Anne got her doctorate there, and Ken was a faculty member at University of Texas (in Houston) for 13 years. So we know a bit whereof we speak.

On the serious side, anyone intelligent in Texas should be looking to relocate themselves or their businesses elsewhere, unless they have no kids to think of or employees to hire who they might want to have a skill or two. And get away from the heat, humidity, hurricanes, cow pies, tumbleweed, and derelict oil-rigs to boot. If you teach at UT, state law says that you'll have to admit, and attempt to teach (or un-teach) the students trained by these fine new textbooks--yes, they'll fill your class!

So, let us know you're ready to bail, and we'll try to find academic job offers for you in the civilized part of the country. You can write to us directly (include a CV), and we'll see if we can help here at Penn State.

Otherwise, looks like you Texuns in deep doo-doo! Y'all hear?


JKW said...

It's not just science. They're rewriting history too. The BBC reports that the textbook changes include referring to the Transatlantic slave trade as the "Atlantic triangular trade"

Ken Weiss said...

yes we mentioned that in our post. Where on earth did the idea that there had been slaves in this country ever come from? It can't just be a Commie conspiracy, lasting into the 21st century, can it? After all, I'm sure I read books (I can, because I wasn't eddicated in Texus) that talked about slavery and were written before Karl Marx ever invented Communism!

The poor Texas book commission misunderstood some arcane reference that they came across somewhere. The 'triangular' [sic] trade was about the shipment of iron ore and chrome from Africa to England, where musical triangles were made and shipped to Texas Evangelical Churches, who in turn shipped missionaries to improve the spiritual lives of the Africans.

Ken Weiss said...

Some may think we've gone too far, or far too far, in lampooning Texas. Not all of its millions of people fit the caricature. Maybe most don't! Two of our kids were born there, and another grew up there and married a Texan (they've emigrated!).

But this isn't the first time that the state has been lassoed by the book commission. There's a history going decades back. So if the rest of the state is so intelligent, how and why did they let this happen again. Or why do they elect so many of the same kind of people to political office?

They've earned the right to be satirized....if it's satire.

Ken Weiss said...

To be fair (why should we, given the circumstances?), the book commission's literate members (if any)claim to be reacting to books that are politicized in a direction they don't like.

The solution is to show that this is a bias and ask that the bias be corrected, not to rewrite history and science.

A bias is something different from a book simply not toeing some commissioner's political line. Mentioning the fact of slavery in the US is not exactly a distortion of history, esp. since slavery happens to be illegal in the US.

But as has been suggested on a parallel discussion of this post on facebook, perhaps the sane response is to move towards etextbooks or online books. We mentioned this in our post. That way, each school district, or even each student, could access what the locals felt was appropriate. Then, the literate districts in Texas could provide proper education. Or literate parents in the other districts would have things to show their kids to counter-act the book commission's wisdom.

Maybe the state will come to its senses when the final vote is actually taken.

Holly Dunsworth said...

It doesn't require curricular propaganda to indoctrinate kids. Texas needs to be more confident in their grown-ups!

Anne Buchanan said...

True enough, Holly. This isn't only about what kids learn in school, of course. It's another maneuver in the culture wars.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, the deeper point is that the point of all this is that the issues are just tokens in the game of cultural power and influence. It's not clear that the protagonists are even aware of this.

It's also true that those of us in my generation were educated in high school biology classes that never mentioned the word 'evolution'. But we were not hampered: we learned about it in college or reading on our own.

But it is true that the University in Texas will have to admit hordes of students who would have been blinkered by a deliberately false education. That will force a watering-down of college classes, that have to spend time remediating. That cheats the students who really want to learn things.

Or, if instructors simply ignore those poorly educated students, and teach the literate ones, that cheats the large number who, through no fault of their own, don't know the difference been salivary and slavery.

Ken Weiss said...

I had a famous text book in my 10th grade Biology. It was very memorable. It's authors' names: Moon, Man, and Otto. And it had an overlay of transparent plastic diagrams of a frog showing the outside, the bones and muscles, and the internal organs.

Steven J Gould had this book, too, and wrote one of his Nat Hist columns about it, and its avoidance of evolution. As I recall he seemed to have found out that it had been expurgated by religious watch-dogs.

Jason said...

I think the best reaction to this type of nonsense is for Universities around the country to announce that they will no longer be accepting students from States that don't have proper education standards. I like to think that if Harvard, Yale and Stanford are suddenly out of the question for parents in Texas, they will be up in arms demanding that they go back to teaching what actually happened. ....I like to think it, but I'm not confident.

Ken Weiss said...

That's a very good operational strategy, not all that different from what we suggested--that we hire away the profs from UT!

Of course, Texas parents might think that their kids will now have a great admissions advantage at Bob Jones and Oral Roberts universities.

Anne Buchanan said...

Though, sadly, this strategy is dead in the water if these textbooks go nationwide...

Ken Weiss said...

Maybe so, but then there will be a market for supplemental materials that can be used. Or maybe a miracle will occur (should I use such a phrase in this context?) and publishers will make books for the other 48 states.

Zachary Voch said...

Even if the textbooks change, I think that there is an inherent conservatism in teaching that offers some partial remedy.

For, professors and teachers do not like to change their lecture notes. On a national level, I have little doubt that Mr. Jefferson will continue to appear in the history curriculum, even if he were to disappear completely from new text books. I have a mixed confidence in teachers, but those who would, say, immediately substitute Jefferson for Calvin are unfortunately already predisposed to delivering a watery, distorted, and ideological view of history mirroring that of the Texas curriculum.

This was the case in my High School economics class which can virtually be summed up as `Free Market is God and is always best, down with pinkos and up with Thatcher and Reagan.'

Growing up and going to school in the American Southeast (the Scopes trial courthouse is well within commuting distance), I have learned that the prevailing opinion of teachers concerning topics like evolution or global warming subtly makes itself known. For legal reasons, creationism will not be introduced, but teachers will be sure to remind you in some way that they are positive Noah had a pet dinosaur. Students, already well-indoctrinated parentally, roll their eyes when Darwin makes his entrance. I at least had the pleasure of being able to call some people out on their presumptions.

The greatest worry I have is that good Tea Party Christian administrations will seize the opportunity to force the whitewashed books upon their teachers.

Now, on Texas, I have a lot of confidence in their people... I just don't have a lot of confidence in their people in, say, Austin, to motivate and organize pressure groups with the same or greater pull than church-based Tea Party lobbying. This has always been a strength of the farther-right Christian Right... They have all the local institutions in place through Churches to organize and inject their people into schoolboards and committees. It's not representative, but they earn their power through their organization. Also, candidates know that they have much more to gain than lose through appealing to the evangelical base. Tick off a few dozen atheists who already vote in a mixed way in order to gain several hundred dedicated fundie votes? Yessir.

Ken Weiss said...

Good comments. But as to class notes, the Righteous Indignation Police may patrol the classrooms by asking kids what they were taught etc., to 'out' those teachers who actually dared to teach facts.

You mention the Scopes trial, and that's reflected there (however, you might be interested in some little-known aspects of who stood for what in the Scopes trial--I have a Commentary on that, downloadable from my web AnthDept web page, Crotchets&Quiddities page).

Some sanity had been returned to some Texas commissioners, it seems. But it is fair to judge people by the company they keep. Republicans, desperate to get the good health care plan offered by Congress to its members, that they're not willing to offer to others, will say anything and get in bed with anybody, to get elected. Those GOPers who aren't whacked out idiots have to bear the burden of their willingness to keep company with the ignoramuses.

Of course, there are sensible people in Texas, as we've said in a couple of replies to these comments. But until they get organized and rid themselves of the ignorant fringe, they are part of the problem by their p[assive acquiescence.

Zachary Voch said...

"But as to class notes, the Righteous Indignation Police may patrol the classrooms by asking kids what they were taught etc., to 'out' those teachers who actually dared to teach facts."

Yes, they will, but they already do. Up to this, at least, I doubt Texas will have much effect here. The practice of `humanist-hunting' is an original and ongoing feature of the modern American Religious Right. I know many classmates who had parents `pre-teach' their kids about evolution, and those parents already tell their kids to do things like disrupt class and/or freak out if anything but high compliments are paid to their religion. Teachers who make no mention of religious concerns when teaching evolution might well earn the dislike of parents. Still, all of this is (a) old news, and (b) will likely remain unaffected by the Texas revisions. The Texas revisions might well become a new topic for the moralists to force-feed teachers, but the difference will largely be one of terminology: All the old prejudicial views get this sort of advocacy; the revisions might at best give it another euphemistic term. Thus, parents might say `revised curricula' instead of `extra attention to Christianity/rightwing propaganda and less of secularism/labor/empire/slavery,' but aside from the words, these are loosely equivalent.

In this area, at least, the responsibility for "passive acquiescence" is nationwide. This sort of thing happens everywhere and almost constantly, very little of it is reported. Parents everywhere have to advocate in the other direction. For us non-parents, we have to pay special attention to the lunatic fringe and vote the other way whenever it comes up. Problem is, here at least, the lunatic fringe is not a fringe at all, but the nice, warm, factually devoid center of ideological comfort. It's a twinkie of stupid here.

Ken Weiss said...

I think you are undoubtedly right. It's scary for anyone who believes that there should be such thing as actual knowledge, but also that public schools were started to make society more equitable than it was before. In that sense, public education is a political exercise.

The fact that it's everywhere isn't cheering. It's hard to do, but maybe one has to step back and be anthropological: humans are what they are, not what we'd like to think of ourselves. Rabid righters have voting rights and are humans just like the rest.

If human society goes through convulsions of violence and inequity, well, that's perhaps just how we are.

But since we're ourselves a part of this, not just anthropologists standing aside and watching, we have to play our role, which is to resist rather than acquiesce. And history shows what can happen to societies where too many are just to busy to watch and resist.

Zachary Voch said...

"But since we're ourselves a part of this, not just anthropologists standing aside and watching, we have to play our role, which is to resist rather than acquiesce. And history shows what can happen to societies where too many are just to busy to watch and resist."

It could not have been said better. I recently posted a comment mirroring this point on Russell Blackford's blog at

He changed the subtitle of his blog to reflect what it had become: defense of civil liberties and advocacy of reason as opposed to his original interests when he made the blog four years ago. There's comparatively very little discussion of metamagical themes and science fiction. This is partially unfortunate, but politics has a way of taking matters largely settled in the educated sphere and calling them unsettled. If no real controversy is to be found, one can always be invented.

It might slow down our intellectual pursuits and make us less focused when it comes to technical matters, but this is a necessary condition by the necessity of the precondition of open dialogue and non-dogmatic discussions. By contributing words, we sheath the swords that would otherwise slice our throats.

It's impossible to spend all of our time working on problems of the sort 'set X causes Y' when 'Y' is denied in the face of all evidence and reason.

I was mostly looking forward to the end of finals week so that I could rededicate myself to grassroots work in promoting reason. Most people would prefer a trip to Florida, but I'm a bit off in certain ways which are enjoyable.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, well I am a former math major, and I used to believe in set X. But now I've heard that set X doesn't really exist. God just created Y.

A properly measured attempt to view the world would take the people whose motives we question, assume they're real and at least some of them are sincere (unlike the demogogues who just pander for their votes), and ask how the world looks from their point of view.

After all, they really do know that Thomas Jefferson existed, that there were slaves and, yes, that evolution really happened.

So what is it that we on the other side blind ourselves to to advance our own agendas? Could our advocacy even of science itself be largely self-serving?

Zachary Voch said...

I was working in naive set theory, therefore I'll treat sets naively.


"After all, they really do know that Thomas Jefferson existed, that there were slaves and, yes, that evolution really happened."

Not sure about the last one... No, many are quite confident that evolution did not happen. For the first one, `Thomas Jefferson' is a different person to a focused student than an ideologue of the nature we're discussing, just as are the rest of the founders. History and documentation gives us a rather secular `George Washington,' but the fifth column material teaches of a `George Washington' who carried a cross in each hand and spat holy water at witches. For the center item, `slavery' also means something quite different. Last year, Hitchens did dialogue and documentary with Douglass Wilson, a pastor who takes a revisionist view of slavery as a `paternal' relationship. For them, `slavery' might well have a favor.

Let's see... factual relativism, euphemism, abuse of and confusion of language, ideologically-motivated revisionism.... can I please say the word `Orwell' and leave it at that? It's an abused name, but this taken all together earns an invocation. It's not exactly Stalinism, but the function feels familiar.

"So what is it that we on the other side blind ourselves to to advance our own agendas? Could our advocacy even of science itself be largely self-serving?"

Certainly! Advocacy of science often involves advocacy of funding for research and museums and etc. These are cozy jobs for scientists! There is of course a material interest at stake, and I feel that scientists, being human as well, are quite readily swayed. Is the direction of research not largely guided and determined by funding above all else?

As for ideological self-service, I think that scientists must be self-critical. Here, I hear my Socratic daemon piping up: it's very safe and easy to proclaim the general pursuit of self-criticism, but do we actually do it? It's a constant process that we have to continue to check ourselves on. Your questions are to me part of that process.

We have an advantage in that we at least advocate a self-correcting process that is admittedly fallible. If we keep this in mind, we can at least advance views preferable to political ideology, at least up to civil liberties and pursuit of knowledge.

Ken Weiss said...

We in science are not as open to self-correction as we'd like to fancy we are, but we're a ton more open than the fringe on the other side. Your points are well taken. I think vigilance vis-a-vis demogoguery and ignorance is critical as early as the signs of it appear. History shows what happens to societies that just say 'it won't go anywhere, it's all to insane.'

There is so much evidence for dinosaurs and so on that I think only the most truly benighted don't, deep inside, realize that evolution is true (whether they believe it applies to humans is a slightly different question)

In Chap 1 of Mermaid's Tale we make this point, saying that even the most religious (but sane) people know that mermaids don't exist because the just don't fit in with the scheme of nature, but Loch Ness monsters could, in principle, exist. They know, deep down.

Ken Weiss said...

Today I rediscovered a cogent quote from George Eliot's book Middlemarch (1871-72). Eliot and her partner George Lewes were avid readers and early intellectual supporters of Darwin's ideas, which they applied implicitly to society. The quote:

"Science is properly more scrupulous than dogma. Dogma gives a charter to mistake, but the very breath of science is a contest with mistake, and must keep the conscience alive."

Clem Weidenbenner said...


In your reply to JKW you suggest that Marx invented communism. Am I to infer from this that any Penn State faculty who would willingly associate with you are somehow historically illiterate? Oh... its just hyperbole...

We all find ourselves from time to time in places where we feel less comfortable for one reason or another. You find friendships and other human relationships in your environment - no matter how 'toxic' the majority opinion might seem. In fact it seems to me the better angels among us are those who would deliberately wander into just those environments we find oppressive and try to make them better. So rather than suggesting that UT faculty bolt in the face of these Textbook Texans, why not highlight the accomplishments of those faculty who fight the good fight? Support them, and leave such strident hyperbole to someone with an agenda backed by a less logical foundation.

Ken Weiss said...

I have had a decades-long (and continuing) personal history with Texas.

Of course there are fine and sensible people there. But we were lampooning something that richly deserves it.

The Texas schoolbook story is not about a couple of people with a right to their own views, but about public policy. And it's not new to that state, where book censorship demagogues have been around for at least 40 years. So the better angels can't say this is a surprise. I'm sorry you didn't appreciate our satire, but in any case hopefully, you'll get organized and get to work.