“The Revisionaries” Commits Texas School Standards Battles to the Fossil Record


Patrick Michels
Movie poster for "The Revisionaries"
Sure, it’s the wrong Capitol building. They couldn’t find a wave big enough to cover ours.

“I would like to delete hip-hop and insert country music.” —Don McLeroy, former State Board of Education chair.

In 2010, as the State  Board of Education  revised Texas’ curricula for science and history, an ultra-conservative bloc of board members led by Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist, drew national attention to Texas—mostly the pointing-and-laughing kind—by casting doubt on evolution and trying to insert politically charged language into the history standards.

Director Scott Thurman and his crew were there to film the proceedings and speak with the folks on both sides of the debate. The result is the brilliant documentary The Revisionaries, which aired last night on PBS. (Skip down for more ways to watch it.)

By my reckoning, the filmmakers spend most of their time with four fascinating guides to the controversy: Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller and Southern Methodist University professor Ron Wetherington on the pro-evolution side, and then-SBOE members McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar—a Houston lawyer and a professor at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—on the other.

The quote from McLeroy above is a good measure of the film’s tone—it catches the state board at its most divisive moments, with honesty and good humor. You can see the moment in the trailer below: McLeroy is on a roll, proposing tweaks to the state education standards as he sees fit, right down to replacing hip-hop with country music, like he’s changing the radio station in a rented car. There’s laughter in the room when he does it, and McLeroy laughs right along.

And then, more often than not, he gets his way.

McLeroy is a fascinating character, and Thurman paints a rich portrait of the personal life behind his politics. We hear McLeroy expounding  his doubts about evolution to patients stuck open-mouthed in his dentist’s chair and watch him lead his Sunday School class across an open field, pacing off the actual size of Noah’s Ark.

We see participants on both sides of the fight sit down and talk with each other, respectful of the opposition’s  beliefs. They only run aground when it’s time to spin those beliefs into policy about what Texas teaches its children.

The film does the important work of reaching past the point-and-laugh instinct that runs so thick in most national coverage of the school standards fight. McLeroy comes across as earnest, and confident in the mandate he’s been given as an elected member of the board.

Which makes his 2010 Republican primary loss all the more dramatic. In the film’s closing act, McLeroy’s replacement on the board, Thomas Ratliff, appears as the voice of everyone in Texas who followed the SBOE debacle and wondered, what the hell is going on?

Since the film’s release, McLeroy has owned his renewed platform, turning up on “The Colbert Report” and joining in a Reddit chat about the movie.

Tomorrow, the SBOE will hold its first meeting of the year, and while the current balance of power favors moderate voices over those of  2010, it also features a few freshmen—Amarillo’s Marty Rowley chief among them—who sound ready to take up McLeroy’s yoke. Even if doesn’t turn out to be a repeat of 2009-2010, we shouldn’t have to wait long for more SBOE: they’re scheduled to select new textbooks for science later this year, and for social studies in 2014.

Depending on where you live, you can probably catch The Revisionaries again—check your local listings here. You can also watch the doc online for free. Here’s the trailer: