SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

The Texas Textbook Hubbub

by Steven Novella, Mar 15 2010

Texas is becoming a recurring spectacle of the triumph of anti-intellectualism and ignorance over science and reason. The substance of this spectacle is the Texas Board of Education (BoE) and the standards for public school textbooks. This is a local triumph, but it has widespread implications, as Texas is a major purchaser of textbooks, and so the industry generally caters to the Texas standards.

Last year our attention was drawn to the Texas BoE over the science standards, with particular attention to evolution. One member in particular, Don McLeroy (who was chairman but was removed) entertained (by which I mean frightened) us with phrases such as “someone has to stand up to those experts.” The particular controversy was over whether or not to insert language into the standards that opens the door for teachers to “question evolution,” meaning to insert creationist propaganda as science.

The new language that was put in includes that students must “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments.” Language was also put in to specifically question the age of the universe, the nature of stasis and change in the fossil record, and the complexity of the cell and information in DNA.

This year the focus of the Texas BoE is to review the standards for world history, and amazingly they have been as successful in causing mischief as they were with the science standards. Don McLeroy is still on the BoE, however he recently lost his reelection bid, and so will be out at the end of the year. Meanwhile, he promises to go full steam ahead with his admittedly religious conservative agenda. (See the Nightline interview from Thursday 3/11 for details.)

The Texas BoE, with or without McLeroy, is dominated by Christian Conservatives. This is not inherently a problem, in my opinion, as long as everyone is dedicated to performing their duty rather than using their position to promote their personal ideological agenda. Alas, that does not appear to be the case.

Carl Zimmer reports that the board voted to remove specific references to the Enlightenment (yes, the Enlightenment) and to (wait for it) Thomas Jefferson. Can there be a better metaphor for the fact that the Texas BoE is unenlightened and they desire Texas students to be unenlightened also?

What’s their problem with Thomas Jefferson – we can only imagine. They argued he was superfluous, which is absurd. Could it have something to do with the fact that Jefferson was the primary architect of the separate of church and state, and that he himself was a deist?

In addition, the BoE has voted to engage in a bit of historical revisionism, among other things voting to insert language that suggest the McCarthyism witch hunts of the 1950s were justified and later vindicated. They also voted for removing reference to Thurgood Marshall, and inserting references to the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, the Moral Majority, and the Contract with America.

History textbooks have always had the problem of political bias (remember the old adage that the victors get to write the history books), and it would be misleading to suggest this is a local or new problem. I also probably risk some of your ire by suggesting the Texas BoE is not entirely wrong when they argue that history textbooks have an existing liberal bias. I remember enough of my high school American history class to believe this is probably true. In fact, we had a discussion in class about bias in history books, discussing in particular the treatment of Richard Nixon with that of Millard Fillmore – the point being that the closer you get to the present, or to issues that are still controversial, the more bias becomes an issue.

The goal should be to eliminate all bias from the textbooks, including (especially) our own. If there is a liberal bias, then let’s have a balanced review and do our best to fairly present history from every perspective and with as little bias as possible. The Texas BoE has not chosen this path. Rather, they have chosen to simply insert as much of their own conservative bias as possible. This does not “balance” the history textbooks, however – it simply inserts more biased history.

It seems to me that one solution, perhaps the best, is to review the history texts with as broad and cosmopolitan a view as possible. This will allow for local biases to average out and for a consensus view to emerge. This very solution has been proposed by state governors – who have suggested the creation of national educational standards to replace state standards (a project called common core).  While they are starting with math and English, this could also apply to science and history.

This idea was proposed to solve the debate over the role of the federal government vs state governments in education. States have resisted federal standards – but this system is a voluntary system proposed by the states themselves. So far every state but two has signed on – the holdouts are Alaska and (you guessed it) Texas.

Another potential solution is to dampen the power of the textbook industry over the quality of our educational system, and by extension the power of the Texas BoE. One way to do this is to simply create high quality textbooks and make them available for free online. I think this is the future anyway – why print outdated material when you can have updated online material.  Material can be printed as needed off the online textbooks, especially for use by school systems with limited computer resources. There are already online wiki-style textbooks being developed. What we need now is a non-profit dedicated to organizing these efforts and imposing a system of quality control. I strongly suspect that the quality such a process would produce would be far superior to the crap the textbook industry generally produces.


The Texas BoE is a depressing spectacle – they represent the absolute worst example of abusing authority to promote a personal ideology, betraying the public trust to promote instead high educational standards. But perhaps the spectacle can be put to good use, focusing attention on the broader problem of the quality of education in the US and potential solutions. We need better and more uniform standards, and better textbooks.

In his Nightline interview McLeroy acknowledged that the Texas BoE has an influence that goes far beyond Texas – so they are acutely aware of the power they wield and choose to abuse it anyway. Perhaps it is time to move away from the tyranny of local majorities in education, to more consensus and quality-driven standards.

34 Responses to “The Texas Textbook Hubbub”

  1. Max says:

    They replaced Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Aquinas, ’cause Jefferson totally copied the Declaration of Independence from Aquinas and others.

  2. The Mice says:

    > “simply create high quality textbooks and make them available for free online”

    The problem here is that the bias-makers can just as easily create free online content and there is a risk that states/school boards/individual teachers will select such content based on how closely it matches their own views rather than its actual quality as well-balanced historical survey.

  3. That is why there would need to be some marker of legitimacy – endorsed by the AAAS, etc. It would need to be obvious that one online series of textbooks were legitimate, supported by the community of scientists, historians, academics, teachers – and the other was an ideological poser.

    • The Mice says:

      You’re right: verification + endorsement would be useful. But it’s an escalating spiral, conservative groups can also create endorsements. It would come down to what endorsements are approved for use by school boards, and that’d be determined probably by the same biased boards of education. And even *if* we can get only the best rational textbooks approved for use, there’d still be the issue of enforcement…

      I feel like I’ve just crossed the line from skeptic to cynic… : (

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I like the wiki approach, wherein credentialed experts can contribute, and have their contributions filtered under the scrutiny of their peers. School boards can selectively choose the curriculum, but the information must come from the wiki. The student then has the required learning tasked to him, but also has other relevant knowledge just a click away.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Unless the wiki is Conservapedia.

      • Sgerbic says:

        My son Caspian suggested that Wikipedia is actually an excellent place to receive information IF you are able to revert to a specific date that has been vetted by the instructor. “On April 3, 2010, this wiki page on (topic) was completely accurate” The student could read from home/school library instead of printing out more paper (textbooks and/or hardcopies).

        Anyone who has been on Wikipedia knows that one page leads to another one and the next thing you know you are learning all about cotton balls (after starting with WWII). It’s impossible to make sure all links are vetted by the professor but for general knowledge the links are usually wonderful.

        This is a free resource available to anyone with a Internet connection and computer.

        I know this does not answer the question how to solve the nation standards for knowledge. But in a specific classroom an instructor can vet the page and assign a date page was correct for students to read.

        I’m sure there is something I’m not seeing as the problem with this.

    • Cthandhs says:

      There is also a role for parents here. I have a couple teachers in the family, and they always recommend reviewing homework and textbooks with the kids, since there are a lot of existing problems, including flat-out errors.

  4. Brian says:

    To remove reference to Thomas Jefferson??? Let me pick my jaw up off the table…

    So the Enlightenment didn’t happen or simply isn’t worth mentioning? What other items do these Christians want to cover up?

    “Lying for Jesus” indeed. Oh wait, if you don’t mention it, it’s not lying. Too clever for God!

  5. Trimegistus says:

    Just to play Devil’s advocate: what if they claimed to be removing Jefferson because he was an awful old racist? What gymnastics would you be using to excuse it?

    • Robo Sapien says:

      In that case, we’d have to claim that racism never happened, and move to have it stricken from the books.

    • Max says:

      What if they claimed to remove Darwin as an awful old racist? Would you stop beating your wife?

    • SeanG says:

      That would also be unacceptable. Studying history should be about actual facts. In order to not repeat the mistakes of the past we need to understand all of it, especially the mistakes. Jefferson is one of the most influential individuals to have ever lived, warts and all.

    • rustle says:

      “What gymnastics would you be using to excuse it?” I’ve reread the post and still don’t get why you ask this. You mean because the author makes the point that BoE members might be eager to dismiss Jefferson because of his Enlightenment influence, Steve would excuse if they did it because of Jefferson’s ownership of slaves? What I get from the post is the opposite of your inference.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I think Trimegistus’ angle was to question the “gymnastics” that the BoE would use to excuse the removal of Jefferson. From the way he wrote it, it tends to read more the other way around.

        But all beam-walking aside, it is still inexcusable to remove anyone from history education, no matter who it is or what they did or thought. It is especially important that kids learn the bad things about Jefferson, as well as the good.

        When I was in school, they taught us about all of the forefathers and told us they were all heroes and great men of unquestionable character. That left my generation in an idealistic bubble, sheltered from the reality of human nature.

      • Max says:

        I think Trimegistus thinks we’re all leftists who oppose right-wing historical revisionism, but would support left-wing revisionism, even though Steve said that history textbooks have an existing liberal bias.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Bingo! In many places, it’s called flame bait.

  6. Robo Sapien says:

    What if they claimed to remove Ike Turner for supporting Darwinism?

  7. I am soooo glad my kids like to do science at home… he have fun with physics, chemistry, astronomy… not so much biology, tho’ I come from a medical family background. Luckily the oldest in school is a junior in HS so he’s pretty much past the point where the TX BoE is gonna screw him up any more, but my youngest (presently 5th grade) will have to put up with the new books. We have discussed this and evolution vs ID (or whatever the buzz word is for non scientific explanation), he’s already said he will tell the teachers he does not believe in gods but will pass their damn tests anyway….. ;) (smart (ass?) kid !!)

    Gotta love livin’ in Texas, where not all of us are Right WingNutz!

  8. hsbio says:

    As a current high school principal, and former high school biology teacher, it pains me deeply to hear all I hear about the Texas BoEf’s decisions about textbooks. I watched the Dateline piece with great interest. We in the school business are constantly hounded about meeting state and federal standards in coursework, career education, and standardized tests. I live in a state that has “local control” which means our school board can opt into or out of state and federal standards…but we risk giving up state and federal monies…and even we have come to hte conclusion that FEDERAL STANDARDS would help be more focused in our teaching, take local bias out of the teaching process, and would greatly diminish the effect TX and CA have on all the textbooks sold throughout the rest of the country….I too believe, that in short order, it will be a moot point….because faster than anyone realizes, technology – electronic textbooks – wiki style texts will take over the textbook business. The textbook business will soon go the same way as the newspaper business…textbooks are too expensive, out of date the minute they are printed, bulky, and too easily damaged.

    As you can see, by my rambling, this topic frustrates me…and many (if not most) teachers and administrators…people who have no expertise in a particular area setting the guidelines/rules for teachers and schools to follow. Much like non-physicians deciding what techniques doctors should use in surgery. We have a saying in the education business…everyone thinks he is an expert because EVERYONE attended school….little do most people realize how different attending school is compared to actually teaching/running school.

  9. Max says:

    Pretty soon Texans will have to homeschool their kids to give them a secular education.

    • Gab says:

      This reason tops our list for homeschooling. We have 2 year old twin girls and live in Texas. We are horrified at what these BOE members have been getting away with. Most private schools in the area are Christian. Not sure of what nonreligious homeschooling material is out there.

      • rustle says:

        Some of my neighbors here in Upstate New York can be just as determinedly backwards as the stereotype we believe some Southerners to be. They rail against teaching evolution in schools or even mentioning climate change as being supported by science. But at least we don’t have to put up with the Texas BoE. I’ve gone through my sons’ and daughters’ textbooks, and even when 2 of them were attending a Catholic high school, evolution wasn’t questioned and science was left to scientists. But a science teacher in a public school did give my daughter “Of Pandas and People”. The school suspended him for two weeks when it was determined he had a box of them under his desk and was handing them out like invites to a rave. And his classes were audited for the rest of the school year. Sometime, I love New York. Even with our crazy politicians.

  10. Chris says:

    What’s their problem with Jefferson? Two words: Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson ripped the miracle parts and any other part he didn’t agree with out of the bible and added new material to account for new knowledge acquired since the original writing. Plus he’s a deist, and as one of the most major of the founding fathers he completely flies in the face of the argument that the US was founded as a Christian Nation.

    Now tell me that isn’t something that a Texas conservative Christian wouldn’t get worked up about.

    • Max says:

      I guess Thomas Jefferson was such a freethinker, that the fundies gave up trying to make him over as a fundie.
      But why didn’t they drop Voltaire as well?

      • Chris says:

        1) Voltaire isn’t a main character in the revolution
        2) Voltaire didn’t author the Declaration of Independence
        3) Voltaire’s bust isn’t enshrined in a mountain

        Thus, Voltaire isn’t the icon Jefferson is which means Voltaire isn’t nearly the threat to their ideology as Jefferson.

      • Max says:

        LOL, I’m picturing them scratching off Thomas Jefferson from all their nickels.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Or sending kids to the principal’s office for carrying $20 bills.

      • Max says:

        Ahem, $2 bills.

        Speaking of money, they also voted to replace the word “Capitalism” with “free market”.

  11. MadScientist says:

    It would be difficult to establish a not-for-profit to produce electronic textbooks and to actually supply material which schools will use. I think we would need a national center with participation by universities as well as other educational institutions (much easier said than done). Funding such a large corporation should ultimately be cheaper than buying millions of books each year as well. There are issues about how such a behemoth would be funded to get it started – you can bet on 2-5 years before useful material is produced for any particular subject. However, I also see that as the way of the future – the question is, who’s going to successfully push the program along?

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Government-funded Education Wiki — lets put our tax dollars into something worthwhile, for a change.

  12. kirk says:

    First the good news, McElroy was defeated in the TX SBOE R-primary by a less lunatic R-candidate who pledged to peal off from the crazy formation. The less good news is that my SBOE Dist. 5 incumbent R-nutcase, Ken Mercer won his R-primary against a very moderate R-business-friendly. The too-early-to-tell news is that an incumbent R-moderate, lost to a “stealth candidate” who may NOT be part of the crazy caucus. The problem with “stealth candidates” is that is exactly how the crazies took over in “down ballot” SBOE elections where Focus on the Family types prepped their churches with movement voters to overrun the SBOE with theocrats.

    And skeptics – you don’t have to debate the motives of the SBOE crazy block. David Barton, a cardinal in the church of crazy and McElroys butt-buddy, has a web-site “” where he lays out the case against modernity.

    If you wonder where all the nut-jobs come from? REDISTRICTING. Austin/Travis county is a lib-prog hive but was carved up into multiple US-House districts to dilute voting strength. My district stretches from Austin to Laredo (over 200 rural miles)to give R-hick Lamar Smith a life-time of R-hick votes in the US House. The SBOE district is drawn in a similar fashion.