In 1988, I watched Jesse Jackson march with students on the Stanford University campus, leading them in a rousing chant of "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ Has Got To Go." Jackson was lending his voice to the movement that suggested that Stanford's entry-level Western Civilization track was — well — too Western, too cluttered by the infamous "dead white males" so scorned by the academic Left, too un-inclusive of the works of deep thinkers like Rigoberta Menchu.
At the time, Rev. Jackson was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Jackson, like or him or hate him, is a master of the highly stylized art of classic oratory and all of its techniques. That year he was up against a field of mush-mouthed mumblers and stumblers who hacked at the English language like a senile grandfather carving the Thanksgiving turkey with a dull knife. Rev. Jackson, the most prominent American critic of the academy's focus on Western culture, was therefore the only Presidential candidate who demonstrated any particular affinity for it. The irony was lost on most of us at the time.
I bring this up because I hear echoes of Jesse's march this week. Are the Lefties at it again? Nope. This time it's the Texas State Board of Education.
I'm sure you've read already about how the Texas State Board of Education, in reviewing the state's social studies curriculum, indulged in open political hackery, voting on what children should learn based on how it advanced their ideological agendas. The Texas Freedom Network's blog had excellent live-blogging coverage of the whole sad affair. One highlight — the Soviet-style un-personing of Thomas Jefferson and the de-emphasis of that un-American movement the Enlightenment:
9:27 – The board is taking up remaining amendments on the high school world history course.
9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. She wants to drop the reference to Enlightenment ideas (replacing with “the writings of”) and to Thomas Jefferson. She adds Thomas Aquinas and others. Jefferson’s ideas, she argues, were based on other political philosophers listed in the standards. We don’t buy her argument at all. Board member Bob Craig of Lubbock points out that the curriculum writers clearly wanted to students to study Enlightenment ideas and Jefferson. Could Dunbar’s problem be that Jefferson was a Deist? The board approves the amendment, taking Thomas Jefferson OUT of the world history standards.
. . . .
9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.” Not only does Dunbar’s amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.
Note also how the Board eliminated words because their political opponents had used those words in a nasty tone of voice:
12:04 – The current standards draft currently refer to the economic system that exists in the United States as “free enterprise (capitalist, free market).” Mercer offers an amendment to strike out “(capitalist, free market)” in the standards and leave just “free enterprise.” The board’s far-right members have repeatedly complained (absurd) that “capitalism” is a negative term and, in any case, that state statute requires students to learn about the “free enterprise system.” Scholars on the curriculum teams had argued that “capitalism” and “free market” are commonly used terms in economics courses and everyday discourse. But Mercer and his allies on the board have this bizarre fetish with the words “free enterprise” over all others. Terri Leo: “I do think words mean things. . . . I see no reason, frankly, to compromise with liberal professors from academia.” The woman is shameless. How dare she attack someone whose politics she doesn’t even know.
12:08 – Pat Hardy notes that the scholar who recommended that “capitalism” and “free market” be used in the standards teaches at Texas A&M and is a Republican. He is “not some kind of crazy liberal,” she says.
12:11 – One is tempted to climb to the top of the Texas Education Agency building and shout: “These people have lost their minds.”
12:12 – Pat Hardy is calling out the board for its silliness and the suggestion that “capitalism” is a “nasty word.”
12:13 – Ken Mercer: I think capitalism is a good word, but academics don’t. Really? And where does he get that? This is a classic example of how some board members attack and smear without any facts.
12:15 – Guess what? It passes. The Texas State Board of Education has stricken from the standards references to “capitalism” and “free market” because the board’s right-wingers think “capitalism” is a negative term. The only permitted term for such an economic system will be “free enterprise.” We wouldn’t believe this if we hadn’t just watched it happen. This is so stupid it makes our head hurt.
Is watching such blood sausage being made ugly and nauseating? Yes. But is this politicization of knowledge the sole province of the Right? No. And the commentators who are harping on this incident are deluded or dishonest to suggest that it is.
What happened before the Texas State Board of Education is appalling. But to the lefties of academia who are particularly incensed, I must paraphrase the pothead kid from the anti-drug advertisements: they learned it by watching you, okay? They learned it by watching you. The academic left has contributed at least equally to the crass politicization of education, knowledge, and epistemology. The scorn you see on the Texas board towards wrong-thinkers like Jefferson is just the Left's sneer of "dead white males" repackaged and re-spun for modern conservative tastes. The lefty tropes of the sixties through the eighties — that a biased educational system has suppressed the truth about the groups we sympathize with in favor of the groups we don't like — have been adroitly scooped up and brought to bear from the right.
So, go ahead and condemn the Texas State Board of Education. I do. But if you pretend that it's a problem of the Right, as opposed to a universal problem when the self-important and politically inclined are let lose on curricula, then you're part of the problem.
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