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Revisionairies and Tooth Fairies

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PBS last week aired “The Revisionaries,” a remarkable documentary about the hard-right, creationist Christian takeover of the Texas state school board and its impact on the nation’s school textbooks. Texas’ student population is so large that publishers often push the state’s choices on the rest of the nation.

And what choices they are: the earth is 6,000 years old; diminished focus on the Civil Rights Movement; Thomas Jefferson is marginalized and John Calvin exalted. You’ll be happy to hear that more moderate folk are getting elected to the board. Then again, how could they not?

Not long after watching “The Revisionaries” I came across an article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, “Abolish Social Studies” by Michael Knox Beran. In it Beran fantasizes about a century-long conspiracy to indoctrinate American children in “collectivism.” Teaching children to work and play well with others, is, in Beran’s nightmare world, just a bit short of teaching Maoism.

Not only Scott Foresman but other big scholastic publishers—among them Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—publish textbooks that dwell continually on the communal group and on the activities that people undertake for its greater good. Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.”

Heaven forbid we should teach kids how to work together or point out that they probably live in neighborhoods. Teaching the importance of the greater good? The road to Stalinism, of course.

To state the obvious, there are thorny questions to be raised about the tricky relationship between the individual and society. The questions are hardly new. But the paranoia about some kind of collectivist conspiracy intent on destroying the individual is downright kooky.

The deep contradiction in the agendas of the Christian Right and the Randian fantasists is that while they claim to be subverting indoctrination, indoctrination is their method. Individual freedom is not their goal. It’s universal conformity to their pre-modern worldviews that they demand.

The success of the flat-earthers is due in large part to the fact that more sane people view their theories as so far-out that they aren’t taken seriously. For instance, how is it that the region surround NASA south of Houston has elected some of the most anti-science school board members (and Tom Delay, too!)? NASA’s scientists and engineers wouldn’t have become scientists and engineers if they’d been taught the anti-science curricula promoted by the Right.

It’s not apathy, exactly. Oddly, part of the answer lies in a persistent progressive faith that the pursuit of knowledge will always outrun its enemies. So, political choices can safely be made on other grounds. That’s a mistake. History has its dark times. There were, after all, the Middle Ages.

The fantasies of the every-man-is-an-island hyper-individualists are part of a general intellectual and cultural retrenchment that’s long been tugging against modernism and technological change. There are always those who believe in tooth fairies. They can’t contemplate a life without them.

So be it. But I wish they could stop characterizing their antagonists as monsters under American beds. They’d be happier people if they could pull it off. I’m not anti-religion. I am an individualist who believes in the obvious fact that we depend upon one another for survival. The greater good is a greater good that should be taught.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith