The Struggle Over What Gets Taught in Texas: An Interview with Rebecca Bell-Meterau

Like many of you, I have been reading with some horror about the culture war which has been taking place down in Texas over the revision of their social science standards, especially because Texas remains a key influence on national curriculum and textbook development. A group of highly reactionary candidates have gotten elected to the school board there, in some cases in races where they ran without opposition and where voters had limited access to information about their views, with the result that they are striping aside anything from the standards that may run afoul of their narrow ideological perspective. Even readers who have expressed concerns in the past about "political correctness" in American education probably are not happy at the thought that Thomas Jefferson no longer has a place in Texas schools. Enter Rebecca Bell-Meterau, a media scholar from Texas State University, who has decided to run for the Texas School Board in order to provide a corrective to these reactionary trends. In the interview which follows, she shares her own story of how and why she got into this race. You have to admire her courage, intelligence, and civic responsibility, since I know very few academics in our field who have ever sought elective office, let alone who would be willing to engage under such trying circumstances. It's sad to think how novel the concept of an educator running for the school board has become! She can use our support -- moral or otherwise -- as she gets ready for this tough race.

You are a university professor who is running for the Texas Board of Education. Can you share some of your academic interests?

I began my academic career looking at gender in film, but when I got to Texas, I quickly developed an interest in how race and cultural identity influence the production of film and other art forms. I participated in seminars on the study of the Southwest and learned a great deal about the history of Texas, Mexico, and surrounding states. I conducted numerous workshops for public school teachers on ways to incorporate media into their classes in English, history, and other subjects, including AP classes.

I also developed a service-learning curriculum, finding ways to connect the college classroom with the larger community, so that university students participate in service projects and group problem-solving activities and then "publish" their work for fellow students. I was asked by Texas State University President Jerry Supple to serve on president's cabinet for two years to improve our retention of freshman students. We began at 68%, below average for an institution of our size, and we now have a 79% freshman retention rate, which is above average for a university of about 30,000 students. My experience is relevant in light of the soaring high school dropout rates in Texas.

How did you come to run for this office?

A number of colleagues had suggested that I run for the board, and then I began attending meetings, thinking that I would support anyone who emerged as the strongest candidate. After speaking before the group about what I would do as a board member (hypothetically), I received an email from a political consultant who told me I was clearly the best person to run. Our younger daughter saw this email and then convinced me to run by pointing out that I could actually improve the state of education in Texas, saving students from the boredom and frustration she experienced in public school. At that point, I decided that if I really cared about education, I needed to step up and do something to rescue Texas from disaster.

Many readers may not know that the Texas Board of Education has been involved in a series of heated "culture wars" over the state-wide curriculum in Social Studies. Can you share with us some of the context of these struggles?

Over the last ten years, extreme right-wing candidates have quietly taken over local and state school boards. In District 5, my opponent, Ken Mercer, ran unopposed by any Democrat in 2006. Their actions went under the radar of most people until recently. With the last round of curriculum decisions, the board has angered a number of Democrats, independents, and reasonable Republicans across Texas and the nation. Extremists on the board have voted to make outrageous revisions to a curriculum suggested by their own review committees--people they, themselves, selected. I will list a few of the more egregious examples, with my own responses:

In one of the most outrageous revisions, they removed "Enlightenment ideas" from the standard. They require instead that students learn about the "writings" of various thinkers. They removed Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from the 1700s to today, and the board placed Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone in the standard instead. Even conservative Republicans find elimination of founding father, Thomas Jefferson, one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers, and replacing him with Aquinas and Calvin to be absurd.

Democratic member Mavis Knight suggested this amendment: "Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others." Cynthia Dunbar and her fellow extremists maintained that the Founders did not intend to have separation of church and state.

They removed the concepts of "justice" and "responsibility for the common good" from a list of characteristics of good citizenship for Grades 1-3. I can't imagine why they would find the concepts of justice and responsibility for the common good to be objectionable.

They removed a reference to propaganda as a factor in the United States entry into World War I. Most historians would acknowledge that every nation uses propaganda, and historians try to sort out what is an accurate portrayal of the facts of history. The board should reexamine the definition of propaganda.

They changed the word "imperialism" to "expansionism" in a U.S. history course standard about the United States' acquisition of overseas territories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The board should keep the term "imperialism" in order to avoid confusing students, especially when they go on to higher education, where the term is used to describe forceful acquisition of territories, particularly during this period.

Former Chair, Mr. McElroy, once called critical thinking "gobbledygook," and the board's systematic censorship of common terms supports this view. The board voted to delete any references to the term "democracy," substituting the term "representative republic." They also deleted the word "capitalism" and substituted the words "free enterprise" throughout the curriculum. They removed discussion of distinctions between sex and gender, fearing this would lead students to think about transvestites and transsexuals.

These battles matter well beyond Texas because Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the country and thus these standards have the potential to impact what's included in the books taught in schools across America. Can you share some of the history of how Texas has impacted textbook publishing?

At one time, texts chosen by Texas were sold all over the country with no changes. Now, with the advent of desktop publishing, Texas still influences the content of textbooks, because publishers and authors do not want to create numerous small revisions. This is a nightmare for publishers and textbook authors, who do not want to produce inadequate, inaccurate texts, but they are essentially blackmailed into censoring information or altering content, for fear of not being selected by this huge market.

In addition to the textbook issue, Texas also serves as a model for the takeover of local and state school boards by extreme right-wing groups. These groups generally believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, that the United States is a Christian nation, that global warming is a myth, and that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the biology classroom as an alternative scientific theory.

While some may argue that most students don't pay that much attention to textbooks anyway, those few students who do study their books tend to be the most conscientious and likely to succeed. Thus, the far right may be able to create a whole generation of extreme right-wing leaders who will take their place running the local, state, and national government of the future.

Is there an over-arching vision behind the changes the Texas Board of Education seeks to impose on textbooks?

The vision they have is a return to a worldview that was prevalent in earlier decades and earlier centuries. They do not respect modern science, teachers, reason, or critical thinking. Their notion of history is "American exceptionalism," which maintains the idea that we are a special nation, chosen by God to fulfill a manifest destiny and spread Christianity throughout the world. Any criticism of the United States' actions is viewed as treasonous, and any attempt to include more minorities or women in history is disparaged as liberal "political correctness." They do not want to depict conflict or nuances in history; rather, they want to present the benefits of free enterprise and a unified portrait of the United States as superior to other nations and cultures in every way imaginable.

What do you think concerned citizens around the country can do about these issues?

Concerned citizens can comment in newspapers and on blogs, contribute to reasonable candidates for State Board of Education, spread the word among their social networks, and take concerted action to defeat this movement to return to the dark ages. They can request that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report provide a venue for good candidates to tell their side of the story. The current board makes for good comedy, but we also need to push the idea that there is hope, that the majority of Texans oppose the ridiculous changes these extremists propose to the curriculum and textbooks.

What changes would you try to implement if you were elected to the Texas Board of Education?

I would return to a reasonable process that respects the work of the review committees and scholars in the various subject areas. I would also recommend that we develop strict criteria for selection of the experts who comment on review committee recommendations. To whatever extent it is possible, I would explore how to repair the damage done by the current lame duck board. Actual textbook development and selection will be the responsibility of the next board. The board needs to take a leadership role in coordinating efforts to improve the state's abysmal dropout rates. It needs to step back from partisan battles and stop micromanaging teachers and forcing publishers and schools to adhere to the outdated personal views of an extreme minority faction.

How many seats would have to change before the revisions in the curriculum could be reversed?

Seven seats of the fifteen-member board are up for election in November 2010. Theoretically, it would only take one new reasonable person on the board to shift the balance from extreme right to a moderate middle. The calculus is somewhat complicated by the fact that some Republicans who are unopposed promise to be more reasonable members of the board. Moderate Republican Tom Ratliff has beat extremist Don McElroy in District 9, and moderate George Clayton came out of the blue to defeat long-time Republican board member Geraldine "Tincy" Miller in District 12 (Dallas).

Democrat and Trinity University professor Mike Soto will probably replace Democrat Rick Agosto, who is not running in District 3 (San Antonio). Agosto often voted with the Republicans on social issues.

To assure a solid majority, the key disputed districts that must be won are 5 and 10, which have been gerrymandered to insure that no Democrat represent Austin. My opponent, incumbent Ken Mercer in District 5, has a strong extreme-right network, with which he defeated a moderate Republican opponent in the primaries. In District 10, Democrat Judy Jennings will run against whichever Republican wins the April run-off.

The board meets in the third week of May, and their proposed changes will be posted on the Texas Education Association website for thirty days prior to that for public comment. The meeting to finalize their proposed curriculum changes should bring protests from Texas and around the country. The final election will be on November 2, 2010.

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