When Conservatives Attack! (the long version)

You know, being a Texan has always been fun for me. I’m not one of those in-your-face, way-too-proud Texans, but I like living here, precisely because this state is so larger-than-life and over-the-top (I can’t stop hyphenating). It’s entertaining. It’s fun to watch the cut-throats in the oil and cattle business do their old school Texas thing. It’s delightful to watch the new breed of cowboy try to leave his mark in electronics, software, or whatever field with whatever new-fangled six shooter he wears. And it’s a pleasure to keep tabs on the eccentric turns the Texas political system takes all the time. It’s just the way things are here.

But the Texas State Board of Education, which is made up of at least seven members (there are 15 total) claiming creationist beliefs, has been the architect of some very suspect actions over the years, and the last few months have only added to its unsteady history.

Let me bring you up to speed, first on a story you may have read about that really heated up toward the end of 2007, and then on a couple more developments involving the Texas board.

In July, 2007, Texas Governor Rick (The Hair) Perry appointed self-professed creationist, Don McLeroy, to head the Texas State Board of Education. Despite the fact that McLeroy is open with his fundamentalist leanings, everyone assumed the appointment was going to be a non-issue. We were not too far removed from the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, so it seemed naming McLeroy to head the state board in Texas was at worst just another stupid decision by Gov. Perry. No one thought it was going to lead to another Kitzmiller scenario.

Well, it quickly became clear that the science education of the children of Texas was indeed in danger of being co-opted by a set of backward thinkers whose ideas would fit better in the Dark Ages than in the proud, progressive state that Texas is and should be. There was a real possibility that the fundamentalists on the board would try to devalue the concepts of biological evolution by including Intelligent Design in the science curriculum. They seemed poised to try to do what the federal court said the Dover, Pennsylvania school board could not.

You see, shortly after McLeroy was appointed, things took a turn for the idiotic. No surprise, considering the kind of ass backward thinking Perry, McLeroy, and others demonstrate without fail. For example, according to the Austin American Statesman:

In 2001, McLeroy and a majority of the board rejected the only Advanced Placement textbook for high school environmental science because its views on global warming and other events didn’t comport with the beliefs of the board majority. The book wasn’t factual and was anti-American and anti-Christian, the majority claimed. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities were using the textbook, including Baylor University, the nation’s largest Baptist college.

In 2003, McLeroy voted against approving biology textbooks that included a full-scale scientific account of evolutionary theory.

At any rate, a staunchly religious, creationist governor had appointed a hardline, fundamentalist to head the State Board of Education. And then in November 2007, Chris Comer, the Texas Education Agency’s Director of Science Curriculum was forced to resign by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for sending out an email announcing a talk by anti-creationism advocate Barbara Forrest.

Suspicious, huh?

Even more so when you find out why Comer was let go. Again from the Austin American Statesman:

[Texas Education] Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, “it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.” The memo adds, “Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.”

My thought at the time was: The Texas Education Agency is required to remain neutral when it comes to science versus antiscience?!?!?!? Shouldn’t one of the TEA’s (particularly the Director of Science Curriculum) main purposes be to promote science over antiscience, and to actually teach children the difference between reality and fantasy? My god, if its goals do not include making a stand against detractors of quality education as well as against pseudoscience, antiscience, trash science, codswallop, claptrap, and quackery, what exactly are its goals? On what issues is the TEA allowed to take a side?

Of course Ms. Comer claimed that her forced resignation was political in nature, and that she was being railroaded. And given what we know about the case, her claim appeared to have quite a bit of merit.

The state education standards were scheduled to be reviewed early in 2008, and one could indeed make the case that Comer was forced to resign because the top TEA administrators and some board members wanted her out of the way before the state science standards were examined, revised, and rewritten. In fact, it was widely reported that plans were underway by some state board members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirement to teach evolutionary biology as part of the state’s standardized curriculum and to require instead that biology instructors “Teach the Controversy” about the “weaknesses” of evolution. If that were indeed the case, it would only make sense for the board to quiet any strong detracting voices, if it could.

Noted anti-creationist Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) commented at the time:

This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas. In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board.

Fortunately, Comer’s dismissal, and the surrounding circumstances, garnered a lot of publicity, causing Perry, McLeroy, and the rest to scramble, like roaches exposed to the light. So early in 2008 when the science curriculum came up for review, they were under a microscope, and perhaps because of good judgement or perhaps simply because of the pressure, made no major changes to the Texas science curriculum standards.

The bad news is, even though the science standards were not overhauled, McLeroy and other board members still want the “weaknesses” of evolution taught. Their religious viewpoint is what influences their politics most.

And their political reach stretches further than just education about evolution. It now seems the conservative board has had a negative impact on sex education in Texas as well.

Take a look at this video from a recent news broadcast in Houston.

Apparently, McLeroy and the conservative members have used their positions to reduce the amount of sex education information available to junior high and high school students. As McLeroy himself says in the news video, the prevailing view among the board is that sex and discussions about sex should be mostly relegated to the confines of marriage — a perfectly fine point of view for an individual. But this bit of moralistic residue derived from a staunchly religious viewpoint simply has no value in terms of educating young people, and may very well be dangerous. It’s an antiquated idea, and one must wonder about the intelligence level of anyone promoting it as a general education standard.

Fortunately, this issue is being used strongly as a campaign point for a woman running against one of the conservative board members. What voters do with it is up to them, but at least the public is getting information about this issue before they go to the polls.

And finally, in addition to evolution and sex, the Texas State Board of Education has been meddling with yet another subject close to my heart. The board members are now also backing a new curriculum that increases the focus on English basics, including grammar.

Initially, I thought this was a good idea, considering scores for Texas students on language-related material have been dismal for a long time now. Plus, as someone who has been paid to write for some 20 odd years, these failures were unacceptable. Admittedly, I personally was somewhat embarrassed by the results. I thought going back to the basics just might be the path to take to get the kids up to where they should be.

However, the article I linked to above points out that standardized tests like TAKS and the SAT — the measuring sticks for students’ language skills nationwide — don’t examine grammar skills in isolation. They test comprehension, and opponents of the state board’s stance on the issue insist this area is where the focus should be placed, not on grammar basics. They also say the standards proposed by the board ignore at least 50 years of research on grammar instruction.

Kylene Beers of The Woodlands, Texas, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English and a senior reading adviser to secondary schools in the Reading Writing Project at Teachers College at Columbia University says:

People who yearn for a return to the basics usually attended school in the 1950s, and by the end of that decade only 20 percent of the best paying jobs required at least some college, in contrast to today’s figure of 56 percent.

When we talk about getting back to the basics in literacy education, the first thing that smart people have to do is to realize that literacy demands have shifted. What’s basic now isn’t the same as what was basic when middle-aged adults of today were in school.

Well, I think Beers has accurately described many of the state board members with that comment. Maybe there is something to the idea of focusing more on language as a whole these days. I mean, isn’t it just as important for communicating effectively in the modern world to know how the Internet and pop-culture work as it is to know the difference between an adjective and an adverb?

The point of all this is, I don’t begrudge anyone their political views — whether conservative or liberal. But nothing from either side (or from the middle of the road for that matter) should be brought into public discourse if founded upon outmoded thinking, or mystical philosophies, or mythology. And on these three issues, that’s precisely what the State Board of Education has done.

Whenever we come across a public official who has allowed his or her religious beliefs to taint the mission of his or her office, we should speak up, speak out, and vote out, if necessary.

And then maybe we can let Texas politics get back to the larger-than-life circus sideshow it’s always been.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. “What’s basic now isn’t the same as what was basic when middle-aged adults of today were in school.”

    Wait, how old is George W.?

    I luv Grammar! I luv Grampar, too!

  2. But nothing from either side (or from the middle of the road for that matter) should be brought into public discourse if founded upon outmoded thinking,

    Ain’t that the truth. Although I can no longer consider myself young, I often find myself wishing for a mandatory retirement age for elected officials. I know age is not always accompanied by backwards views, but very often it is. I would like to see more young people gain more power in government. I get so tired of hearing from people who think the 1950s were some kind of heaven on earth.

  3. Are they planning on allowing “txt spk” in exams like was being prosposed elsewhere? (Because what matters is demonstrating understanding, not comprehensibility.)

  4. Are they planning on allowing “txt spk” in exams like was being prosposed elsewhere? (Because what matters is demonstrating understanding, not comprehensibility.)

    Actually, I’m not sure of the exact methods the teachers who oppose the state board use or want to use. I would guess that given its prevalence, txt spk would have to be integrated in some form or fashion. But I don’t know if they want to allow it or include it on exams.

    But that’s a good point. The broader range of language elements, including txt spk, are what many are claiming to be way more important for communicating effectively than grammar basics.

  5. Not all of us conservatives are fundies. My personal politics are very conservative … and I am an atheist.

    In fact, many fundies are populists, and damned near socialists politically ( i.e.: Huckabee ).

    If you want to slap around fundie idiots, that’s OK by me, but please refrain from tarring the rest of us.

  6. “I get so tired of hearing from people who think the 1950s were some kind of heaven on earth.”

    Sadly, you can actually hear this from 20-year-olds who were raised to believe the 1950s were an ideal, idyllic time. (Which is, ah, why novels like Naked Lunch were all about the nuclear family, mom, and apple pie.)

    Seems like there’s no real conservatives any more. My dad’s values are obviously not these values–he’s about reality, and the inexorable nature thereof, rather than demagoguery and an infantile worship (but not experienced) of ages past.

  7. Well,

    Some of the happiest days of my life were in Texas.

    They are quite cosmopolitan, in certain areas. (Henry Moore sculptures at city hall, how you gonna beat that! In your face New York!!!)

    I do see a “red neck rising” lately that makes me want to hide for 300 years and cut to the “happy” ending.

    But I met some damn nice people in Texas, who were anything but stupid.

    They, Christian or not, don’t like this latest news any better than we do.

    It may be that they’re a minority, but I didn’t notice them being too quiet about it.

    That’s my take,


  8. “If you want to slap around fundie idiots, that’s OK by me, but please refrain from tarring the rest of us.”

    So. How do we get the christian right to adopt this taxonomy?

  9. You know, it’s the craziest thing: for all that most people think Texas is backwards redneck-land (and a lot of it is, I have to admit), I’ve lived here off and on for about half my life, maybe a touch more, and I’d never met a young-earth creationist until a couple of months ago…. well, at least that I know of.

  10. . . . I’ve lived here off and on for about half my life, maybe a touch more, and I’d never met a young-earth creationist until a couple of months ago…. well, at least that I know of.

    Yeah, I think I’ve only ever met one or two myself. But when they get high-profile jobs and the rest of the country gets wind of it, it adds to peoples’ misconceptions about the population in general.

  11. Scotte: The Christian “Right” is the problem … and they aren’t really conservative. They would gladly elect Joe Stalin if he were to require Xtian worship at gunpoint.

    The prob is getting the majority of other conservatives to realize what an albatross these bloody idiots really are.

  12. “I get so tired of hearing from people who think the 1950s were some kind of heaven on earth.”

    Me too…though I am even more tired of people who think the 1990s were some kind of heaven on Earth. That’s even less excusable.

  13. I recently read some articles with statistics (not sure of the quality of the data) regarding our standard of living, personal safety, longevity, health care, education and economic opportunity. The data made it pretty clear that all current generations over the past few hundred years have been better off than the previous generation and some by a substantial margin.

    There does seem to be a compelling tendency for many humans to romanticize the past.

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