State Board of Education Continues Attack on Social Studies Standards, Day 2

Live Blog of the Texas State Board of Education
by Published on

Welcome back to the live blog of the Texas State Board of Education in Austin. The meeting begins on time at 9:00 a.m. At the moment, the SBOE parliamentarian is addressing the Board members about the fine points of making amendments.

Robert Scott thanks the Board for their efforts to revise the social studies standards. He continues to support the adoption of education standards by Texas rather than adopt core curriculum standards written by a consortium organized by most other states. The core curriculum standards are becoming the de facto national education standards although they are not written by national education officials but rather by state governor-appointed education experts. Their creation is only being facilitated by the Federal Department of Education.

Radical Dunbar Removes the E-word

No, not Evolution, as she did for the Earth and Space Science standards in 2009. This time it’s the Enlightenment. It doesn’t take long for the State Board’s radical religious right members to begin attacking good standards that they object to for ideological reasons. SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar goes after the Enlightenment principles upon which the Founding Fathers based their political philosophy and helped  create the Constitution and government of the United States. She successfully moves to strike “John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government” in the World History standard that asks students to learn the impact of political and legal ideas on contemporary political systems. This debilitating motion passes without justification or objection. Locke was certainly the most important Enlightenment political philosopher, and Dunbar obviously wants to remove Enlightenment sources of modern political philosophy.

Then Dunbar proposes an even worse amendment. She moves to replace the phrase “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas” with “explain the impact of the writings” and add the names Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin to the list of Enlightenment legal and political scholars whose writings students must study to understand political revolutions after 1750. I presume it goes without saying that Aquinas and Calvin are not Enlightenment political philosophers; indeed, they are about as opposite as historical figures as could be found, since they based their views and writings on sectarian theology and authoritarian dogma, precisely the opposite of Enlightenment values of evidence, skepticism, and tolerance. The list of Enlightenment figures includes Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Blackstone. Jefferson was once a member of this list, but Dunbar quite unnecessarily and unjustly removed him in January. The list was meant to include the names of major Enlightenment philosophers whose writings influenced the American Revolution and subsequent later revolutions such as the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson deserves to be on this list as much as Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Blackstone, since his authorship of the Declaration of Independence made him a leading Revolutionary philosopher respected by the French revolutionists.

SBOE member Dunbar wanted Jefferson removed from the list because she didn’t want students to know that Jefferson–a Deist-Unitarian who was opposed to Christianity and who created of phrase “wall of separation of church and state,” a phrase used subsequently by several Founders and in several Supreme Court decisions to explain the intent of the Establishment Clause–was associated with the Enlightenment and responsible for these ideas in the formation of the U.S. Once again, Dunbar wants Texas students to remain ignorant and confused about the political and religious beliefs of one of the most famous Founding Fathers, American intellectuals, and the third president of the United States, so she–a well-known far-right religious and political extremist–deliberately censored Jefferson out of the one place where his religious and political views were most appropriate. How utterly despicable, treacherous . . . and un-American.

This vile amendment carries 8-6 with vocal objection only by Bob Craig, who says that students should learn about the important Enlightenment philosophical principles as the professional standards writers intended. Now the word “Enlightenment” has been censored from the world history standards and two theologians, whose writings have little or nothing to do with the development of modern political and legal philosophy (except as negative examples), have been added. One of these theologians, John Calvin, was a bigoted and cruel religious leader whose influence created a distopian political system in Geneva that was later abandoned by his original followers due to his anti-democratic and theocratic excesses. Calvin’s bigotry and cruelty during his lifetime is best demonstrated by the burning of early Unitarian Michael Servetus at the stake because Servetus had published an analysis of the Bible that found no scriptural justification of the Christian concept of the Trinity. Calvin wrote a friend that he would not assure Servetus safe conduct: “for if he came [to Geneva], as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive.” Servetus was correct in his analysis about the Trinity, since there is no Biblical justification for trinitarianism; it is a dogma adopted by early Church authorities in a majority vote, much like what is happening in Austin and the SBOE. The lack of scriptural justification for trinitarianism was also the stumbling block for Isaac Newton, Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, and many other American Enlightenment figures that led them to become Deists and Unitarians.

Calvin, however, is beloved by authoritarian and aggressive religious extremists such as Ms. Dunbar, so they wanted to get his name in. He and Aquinas were inserted solely to promote the Christian religion in what is supposed to be a secular study of world history. [Note added later: I have learned--from an interview on Hardball on MSNBC--that Dunbar's motivation for adding Aquinas and Calvin is that they discussed the concept of natural law in some of their writings, and natural law was one source of revolutionary America's justifications for separation from Great Britain. However, the two theologian's writings are a tenuous source indeed, since Jefferson used more proximate sources for his concept of natural law, such as Locke and Blackstone, which he certainly accepted and used in the Declaration of Independence, for example. I have subsequently read the passages in Aquinas and Calvin where they discussed natural law; they are heavily theological and have nothing to do with political philosophy.]

This is a clear example of the extreme right-wing religious and political agenda of some SBOE members being expressed in public education standards that will adversely affect student learning and understanding of modern political systems. Instead of receiving a clear understanding of Enlightenment ideas that have tremendous influence in modern politics and countries, especially including the United States, they will instead be forced to learn misguided and confusing information about two historical figures who have nothing to do with the original intent of the standard and may not learn the actual name (Enlightenment) of the historical source of the ideas because the name has been censored from the standard (reliable and accurate textbook authors and publishers will keep the name, of course, since while it is no longer required, it is not forbidden).

The main problem of this example is that most SBOE members probably did not perceive the ulterior motive of Dunbar’s motion, which was to damage student’s education to prevent them from learning progressive ideas and instead confuse them by including the writings of dogmatic theological authoritarians together with the legitimate influential political scholars and philosophers. They also have so little knowledge of history that they did not understand that Dunbar was deliberately damaging a good history standard to promote her extreme religious agenda. The reprehensible motions were passed with little comment when every professional historian in the country would have objected vociferously, as I object to this appalling process of the re-writing of history standards by ignorant and duplicitous public officials. I predict that Dunbar’s stupid and ignorant over-reaching (removing Jefferson and inserting Aquinas and Calvin) will backfire as people realize how completely bigoted, mendacious, and un-American this is.

Amendments to Add Hispanic Minorities Defeated by State Board Republicans

During a discussion of recipients of National Medal of Honor winners, Barbara Cargill revealed her complete ignorance of the continued discrimination and suffering of minorities in the United States. She baldly stated that the country has been very good to minorities and things are much better for them. In the back of the room where I sit, numerous writers were snickering at her incomprehensible lack of knowledge about and appreciation of the fact of continued discrimination that minorities receive in America. She is so out of touch with reality because she is so completely focused on her religious community. Mavis Knight harshly responded to Cargill and told her that she is really out of touch with the reality of the situation. She insisted to Cargill that discrimination continues and things are not “all right in the United States for minorities” as Cargill believes. Tincy Miller then spoke about her personal knowledge of discrimination of Jews, saying that no one should be left out.

Mary Helen Berlanga’s simple motion to add the names of three Hispanic-American Medal of Honor recipients is debated endlessly and ultimately does not pass. The religious right members voted against her. I saw her in the hall later being interviewed by a Spanish-language television network to which she was explaining the continuing discrimination against minorities in Texas. Readers need to remember that the extreme conservatives on the Board have repeatedly added the names of specific social conservatives and radical religious right figures, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Newt Gingrich, to the social studies standards. But now they vote against adding the names of minorities and even voted yesterday to remove the name of Oscar Romero. How shameful and hypocritical and how typical of old Texas. Someday soon this outrageous practice of official and public discrimination against minorities and favoritism toward extreme conservatives will end. It’s no wonder Texas students score so low on national standardized tests since their curriculum content is so censored.

The Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Rick Agosto, Mary Helen Berlanga, and Rene Nunez make an effort to return the name of Oscar Romero to the standards, but they are prevented by a Rules of Order problem. Barbara Cargill moves to amend a citizenship standard to include the right to keep and bear arms. She wants students to learn that owning guns is good citizenship. Bob Craig, Mavis Knight, and Mary Helen Berlanga argue that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with citizenship, and the standards already require students to identify the freedoms and rights guaranteed by each amendment in the Bill of Rights. Rick Agosto moves to add “Second Amendment” to Cargill’s motion; this carries.

The proper location of inserting Cargill’s new phrase is now debated at length, with several Board members wanting to put it in the standard strand that discusses the Bill of Rights. Finally, it passes, and the new standard reads, “analyze the importance of the First Amendment rights to petition, assembly, speech, and press, and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” It’s nice to know that our State Board of Education believes the Second Amendment is equal in importance to the First. BTW, this new text about the right to keep and bear arms is inserted into a standard strand that says, “The student understands the importance of the expression of different points of view in a democratic republic.” So now, according to our all-wise SBOE, guns are an example of a different point of view. I don’t like your point of view; here’s mine–Bang!

American Free Enterprise (formerly Capitalism)

In a standard strand that asks students to understand the roles played by governments in the U.S. free enterprise system, Ken Mercer moves to add a new standard: “understand how government taxation and regulations can serve to as restrictions to private enterprise.” Mercer stupidly believes that government regulation and taxation are bad for the economy and wants students to learn this nonsense. Amazingly, this economically absurd amendment passes, so now high school social studies is going to indoctrinate students in more false libertarian and laissez-faire dogma. Thomas Friedman wrote a column two months ago about how the Danes massively increased taxes on electricity generation from coal, forcing the entire Danish society to conserve electricity better, develop alternative forms of energy, and re-think various business systems. The extra tax money was used to help Danish industries re-tool and begin to develop and use alternative green power. This policy of increased government regulation and higher taxes resulted in a massive growth in Danish alternative energy industries, an area in which Denmark leads the world and has been massively profitable for that country.

The Danes became one of the world’s largest exporters of alternative energy technology and profits increased dramatically. The U.S. buys wind turbines from Denmark, for example. The Danish air is cleaner and their society is wealthier. This is only one example out of thousands of how smart government regulation and taxation policies leads to profitable economic growth and cultural improvement. It is people like Ken Mercer who prevent these kinds of policies from happening in Texas and keep our society poor and polluted (Texas has the weakest environmental laws and is thus the most polluted state in the country). What needs to be limited here is not government regulation and taxation but SBOE power to insert stupid and ignorant standards into state education curricula.

Ken Mercer moves to remove the words and parentheses “(capitalist, free market)” from all social studies standards that mention “free enterprise” together with the parenthetical expression. Pat Hardy says the three terms for the same thing were a compromise used to keep the standards clear for students to understand, since the word “capitalism” is used in college and university courses and the professor on the standards writing committee said it should be included so students won’t be confused. The religious reactionaries on the Board justify their dislike with “capitalism” by claiming it’s use in parentheses is “cumbersome.” However, the true motive of these radical religious right Board members is that they object to the word “capitalism” because they consider it pejorative and derived from Karl Marx! Terri Leo says we should not follow or compromise with liberal professors from academia, so we should remove the word. Hardy asks out loud why the Board members object to the term “capitalism” but nobody cares to explain it to her. Mercer’s motion carries 8-7, so the Board wants to keep students confused and ignorant. That’s business as usual in Texas public education when the SBOE messes with Texas education standards.

Another Failed Amendment for Texas Minorities

Mary Helen Berlanga proposes an amendment to include the inclusion of the historical individuals and tribes asked for by the various minority and indigenous tribal organizations. Predictably, this amendment fails and Ms. Berlanga asks that the record reflect the fact that these groups’ requests for inclusion in the history standards was refused by the Board.

Church-State Separation and Religious Freedom

Mavis Knight moves to insert a new standard in the history strand that asks students to understand how constitutional government in the U.S. has been influenced by ideas, people, and historical documents, including the Cons
itution. Her amendment reads: “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” The Founders did this in the Constitution by prohibiting any religious test for public office and by later adopting the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment of which contains the two religion clauses, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Knight has several reasons for her motion, one of which was that the Founders knew that allowing government to favor a particular religion was a threat to religious freedom for all. She might have added that the Founders were well aware of the history of religious wars and persecution in Europe and wanted to avoid that cruelty and misery in the new United States.

Cynthia Dunbar strongly objects to the motion and starts to reel off several misleading and unsound arguments derived from her misreading of American Constitutional history. She says the issues are “too complex” and “too broad” to consider in this standard strand so we should avoid this topic. In her anger, Dunbar begins to raise her voice and speak faster as she objects to Knight’s motion. She considers herself an expert on this topic, strongly supports Christian religious establishments by public institutions and governments, and must think the amendment is a personal insult. The hearing room is completely silent. The silence continues as Knight responds to Dunbar. Ms. Knight correctly says that the proposed standard is completely fixed in current law and should not be objectionable. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the interpretation that the Founders did protect religious freedom in their new country by writing the Establishment Clause, which bars government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.

Dunbar objects to Knight’s motion because she believes the Establishment Clause says only that a “national religion” is prohibited, a common and mistaken religious right belief. She has obtained her information from individuals such as David Barton and Peter Marshall who are notorious in their ignorance about the history of and disdain for the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. Dunbar’s legal practice deals with her mistaken and bizarre interpretation of the Establishment Clause, and of course her reactionary colleagues agree with this interpretation. In fact, this incorrect interpretation is fixed in the Texas Republican Party platform and is a staple of their propaganda. Republicans vehemently object to the separation of church and state, a metaphor used by several Founders and Supreme Court decisions to explain the meaning of the Establishment Clause.

Because of its terse wording, the Establishment Clause has been interpreted by the far right to prohibit only a national religion. In fact, the Founders wrote extensively about the original meaning of the clause; to them, it prohibited the favoring of any religion over another religion by the national government, not just the creation of a national religion. The historical record of the debate from which the final wording came results in the same conclusion: a broad proscription against any governmental favoritism to any religion. This is the context from which Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of church and state,” a phrase subsequently used by other Founders. Later, when the Establishment Clause was used to prevent government religious favoritism by state, county, and municipal governments, the Supreme Court used the metaphorical phrase to explain its reasoning and interpretation.

Knight’s motion fails 9-5. Mavis Knight requests a recorded vote and it shows the five Democrats voted for the motion and all ten Republicans shamefully voted no. On the recorded vote, Chairman Gail Lowe votes no so the final official vote is 10-5. Now you know which political party wants to protect your religious liberties in Texas, but you probably already knew which.

Natural Law and Nature’s God

Cynthia Dunbar moves to substitute “laws of nature and nature’s God, unalienable rights” where the terms “natural law, natural rights” are used in a standard that helps students understand how constitutional government has been influenced by ideas, people, and historical documents. She claims these are the exact terms used in the Declaration of Independence and should be preferred over the political philosophical terms. The hidden motive for this amendment, of course, is to get the word “God” in the social studies standards. Jefferson believed in Natural Law and in a Deistic God that he termed “Nature’s God” and the “Creator.” He specifically objected to the Christian God since he was a Unitarian. He believed this god was the source of natural law and rights, so he used this justification in the Declaration of Independence. Other of the Founders accepted this concept of Civil Religion so they readily signed the Declaration. Today, only extreme religious conservatives and reactionaries believe in Natural Law (and that it trumps governmental statutory, court, treaty, and regulatory laws). This bizarre and totally unnecessary amendment passes 11-3.

Reactionary Dunbar Removes the D-word

SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar nexts moves to replace the word “democratic” with the word “constitutional” whenever the phrase “democratic republic” is used throughout the entire social studies document. The intent is to remove the term “democratic” because it suggests a democracy and this, in turn, suggests the Democratic Party. The Republicans constantly and mistakenly claim that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, so this is their chance to put this bizarre belief into state social studies standards so that students will also become confused and perhaps believe the same thing. Of course, the U.S. is both a democracy and a constitutional republic (the U.S. is not a pure democracy; it is a representational democracy). Republic means Representation of the public, so the public or demos is included in the name “republic.” So Dunbar’s motion is just a vile and mean-spirited act to get a crazy Republican belief reflected in state educational standards. The amendment carries 9-3 with two abstentions and one non-vote (Lowe). Now the next Republican president cannot say the U.S. is fighting to spread democracy around the world; he or she will have to say our country is fighting to spread constitutional republicanism (note small r) around the world. I’m sure the other countries in the world where all the U.S. fighting takes place will not see the point of this change in terminology. The publishers can comply with the new standards by using “democratic constitutional republic” in all instances. “Constitutional replaces “democratic” and then “democratic” is added again. Perfect compliance as mandated by mental incompetents.

More Right-Wing Amendments

Debate on social studies standards begins again at 3:15 p.m. Barbara Cargill moves to insert  conservative Robert Nisbet into the list of sociologists that students must know about. This is approved. Her next motion is more worrisome. Cargill moves to remove the standard from sociology that asks students to “explain how institutional racism is evident in American society.” The context is that students need to understand the impact of race and ethnicity on society. Mary Helen Berlanga objects immediately, saying that this Board has been whitewashing the social studies standards during several meetings and they need to leave something in so that the remaining standards retain some integrity. Both Bob Craig and Mavis Knight point out that institutional racism is still present in society. Cargill wants the standards to reflect her belief that America–in her view the greatest Christian society in history–is perfect and all the problems of the past are over. The amendment fails 11-3; only Bradley, Cargill, and Leo vote in favor of this extremely bigoted motion. Finally, a Board majority shows some backbone and integrity.

Next, Cargill objects to a standard that asks students to “differentiate between sex and gender as social constructs and determine how gender and socialization interact.” She moves to strike it. Cargill thinks this topic is inappropriate for high school students and is afraid the standard will increase student interest and acceptance of gay and transgender people. Lawrence Allen asks if Cargill has been in a high school recently. After discussion at length about the appropriateness of this standard, the vote taken to strike it carries. So Texas high school students will continue to be ignorant about very important sexual topics that they should understand for future life in U.S. society. This type of negative education is traditional in Texas and simply breeds xenophobia and conflict. It is shameful that the extreme conservatives on the Board perpetuate this policy.

It’s 4:30 p.m. and I have to leave now for a science conference at Texas A&M in College Station this evening. Famous physicist Francis Everitt and mathematician Roger Penrose are speaking. I promise I will complete this column soon. I should tell readers that both the audio and video are available online on the TEA website and the audio is archived, so I can listen to that to complete today’s changes if necessary.