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Fri

02

Jul

2010

Tainting Textbooks, Abolishing Academic Freedom, and Maligning Gay Americans: Tales from the Texas GOP
Friday, 02 July 2010 02:41
by Mel Seesholtz, Ph.D.

Let’s begin with two basic premises:

1. Textbooks used in public schools should be as accurate, honest, and as bias-free as possible. Their content should rely on the work of recognized scholars, not ideologues, elected officials or politicians who bow to the whim of “the people” even when those people base their views on religious superstitions and dogma or ingrained biases.

2. The tenure system in higher education was instituted to protect professors and the academic environment from pressure by religious zealots, political ideologues, and other outside forces. “Academic freedom” was meant to ensure professors could discuss – in an open forum – ideas that may not be socially or politically popular and would not be punished for doing so.

The Christian Right and their GOP sycophants have been very busy in Texas revising guidelines for textbooks to be used in that state’s public schools:

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change
By James C. McKinley Jr.
March 12, 2010

AUSTIN, Tex. – After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light. The vote was 10 to 5 along party lines, with all the Republicans on the board voting for it. …

In recent years, board members have been locked in an ideological battle between a bloc of conservatives who question Darwin’s theory of evolution and believe the Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles, and a handful of Democrats and moderate Republicans who have fought to preserve the teaching of Darwinism and the separation of church and state. … rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum. … There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics. … [italics added]

No historians, sociologists or economists consulted? No experts in theses disciplines were asked for their professional advice? Elected board members – with occupations such as real estate agent and dentist – made decisions in specialized fields of knowledge in which they had no expertise? Does that make any academic sense?

“Some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topic.” Have they published in legitimate peer-reviewed professional journals in the subject areas and on the topics they claim to be experts? If not, what’s the basis of their claim to expertise? Reading a few books on a subject does not make one an expert, especially if those books were chosen because they supported preconceived beliefs and opinions.
 

Aside from pushing an ultra-conservative ideology, perhaps the most egregious change proposed by the Texas board was this one:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”) … [italics added]

Ms. Dunbar is “a strict constitutionalist.” Constitutionalism is a multi-faceted term. Generally it refers to the belief that the U.S. Constitution should be taken literally, just as written in the 18th century. No interpretations. No updating in response to 21st century realities. If the “right” or “responsibility” is not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution, it does not exist. Since there is no explicit “right to privacy” enumerated in the Constitution, it does not exist, according to constitutionalists. And since the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, it does not exist as a principle of America government.

Cut out Thomas Jefferson, the “Author of the Declaration of American Independence[,] of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom[,] and the Father of the University of Virginia”? By his own instructions, those were the hallmarks Jefferson insisted be on his tombstone. But he did coin the phrase “separation between church and state.” Guess that’s an unforgivable transgression for Ms. Dunbar.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) is indeed a major figure in the evolution of Christian theology. But many of the Founding Father – Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson to name but a few – were Deists and understood there was a difference between being Christian and being American which helps explain why the United States was not founded as a Christian nation, as Ms. Dunbar believes.

If the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” why is there absolutely no mention of Jesus in any of the country’s founding documents. Indeed, the word “God” does not appear in the Constitution. “Creator” does in the Declaration of Independence, but that’s in keeping with Deist beliefs and those of Thomas Jefferson:

Although Jefferson believed in a Creator, his concept of it resembled that of the god of deism (the term “Nature’s God” used by deists of the time). With his scientific bent, Jefferson sought to organize his thoughts on religion. He rejected the superstitions and mysticism of Christianity and even went so far as to edit the gospels, removing the miracles and mysticism of Jesus (see The Jefferson Bible) leaving only what he deemed the correct moral philosophy of Jesus.

John Calvin (1509 - 1564) was anything but an advocate of religious or academic freedom or civil equality. Check out the tenets of Calvinism here and here and here and here. One of Calvin’s beliefs was that there were some people who were predestined to be saved and other who were predestined to be damned, and there was nothing either group could do to change their fate. One has to wonder about Calvin’s “God.” Why would “God” create people He intended to damn, no matter what they did? That sounds like a malicious, wicked, anthropomorphic “God” to me.

William Blackstone (1723 - 1780) was a famous English judge, jurist and professor of law whose four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England remains an important source for common law and its principles. But again, like Aquinas and Calvin, Blackstone was not exactly in favor of religious freedom and civil equality as Jefferson understood those terms or we understand them today. Blackstone had this to say about Catholics: “while they acknowledge a foreign power, superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects” (IV, c.4 ss. iii.2, 54). That sounds a lot like Christian fundamentalists who think their religious beliefs privilege them and should, therefore, dictate civil law.

For Aquinas, Calvin and Blackwell, some people were not equal to others because of their religious beliefs. It seems Ms. Dunbar and her conservative Christian and GOP allies on the Texas board want that to be a message public school textbooks convey and hold up as a “good example” for today’s students to follow.

The recently released Texas GOP platform contains the “logical,” second-phase assault on civil equality and higher education: “Removing the tenure system for Texas state colleges and universities.”

GOP inquisitors want to do away with tenure in Texas state colleges and universities. That would enable them to curtail academic freedom by putting pressure on state-funded colleges and universities that don’t dismiss faculty who contradict conservative Christian and GOP “thinking.”

In the “Marriage License” section, the Texas GOP platform also advocates creating “a felony offense for anyone who performs a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple.” There are also feverishly vicious anti-gay sections on “Celebrating Traditional Marriage,” “Family Values” (that devalues and dismissed same-sex families), “Marriage and Divorce,” and this one on “Homosexuality”:

Homosexuality – We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, refuse to recognize, or grant special privileges including, but not limited to: marriage between persons of the same sex (regardless of state of origin), custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits. We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values.

What’s tearing “at the fabric of society” and harming families is the seething hatred and bigotry oozing from the Texas GOP platform. As for children being raised by same-sex parents, apparently the drafters of the Texas GOP platform chose to ignore studies such as this one:

Children thrive equally with same-sex, heterosexual parents, psychologist testifies at Prop. 8 trial
January 15, 2010

A Cambridge University developmental psychologist testified at a federal trial in San Francisco today that broad research has documented that children of same-sex parents are just as likely as those of heterosexual parents to be well-adjusted.

“Studies have found children do not require both a male and female parent,” testified Michael Lamb, who heads Cambridge’s Department of Social and Developmental Psychology….

And this one:

Same-sex couples can be effective parents, researchers find
Updated 1/21/2010
By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

Children raised by same-sex couples appear to do as well as those raised by parents of both sexes, suggests an international research review that challenges the long-ingrained belief that children need male and female parents for healthy adjustment.

“It's more about the quality of the parenting than the gender of the parents,” says Judith Stacey of New York University, co-author of the comprehensive review. It will be published Friday in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

In all the battles about same-sex marriage, the only source of opposition has been based on religious dogma. Even those who testified in the recently concluded Prop 8 trial in California could not offer any evidence that same-sex marriage would harm anyone or anything. All they could do was acknowledge that prohibitions against such unions were discriminatory and harmful to gay and lesbian Americans:

A Basic Civil Right
June 10, 2010

After a nearly three-week trial in January, and a lengthy hiatus while lawyers fought over documents, closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. …

The testimony made abundantly clear that excluding same-sex couples from marriage exacts a grievous toll on gay people and their families. Domestic partnerships are a woefully inadequate substitute. …

Defenders of Proposition 8 produced no evidence to back up their claim that marriage between same-sex couples would hurt heterosexual marriage. …

The defense called only two witnesses. The first, Kenneth Miller, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, argued that gay people are a powerful political force, which was meant to support the claim that there is no need for enhanced judicial protection. He ended up admitting that gay men and lesbians suffer discrimination.

The other witness, David Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values, argued that marriage is being weakened by rising divorce rates and more unmarried people having children, but he could not convincingly explain what the genders of married couples had to do with that.

Upon questioning, he acknowledged that marriage is a “public good” that would benefit same-sex couples and their children, and that to allow same-sex marriage “would be a victory for the worthy ideas of tolerance and inclusion.” The net result was to reinforce the sense that Proposition 8 was driven by animus rather than any evidence of concrete harm to heterosexual marriages or society at large.

Religion has its place, but not as the arbiter of civil matters, such as who can enter into the state-sanctioned, civil institution called “marriage.”

A balanced representation of political, economic, and sociological theories and perspectives is the goal for all textbooks used in public schools, but how that’s accomplished should fall to scholars in the various fields of study, not elected school board members with no expertise in the fields of study they’re making judgments about and who openly admit they are pushing a certain ideological perspective.

The system of academic tenure may have its problems, but without it religious zealots and their ultra-conservative political allies in state legislatures could force colleges and universities to become indoctrination centers and the free and open exchange of ideas in the classroom would be a thing of the past.

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