Friday, 12 February 2010

The onward march of religious fundamentalists in the USA
The Left is often accused of being anti-American simply because it often pillories the stupidities of right wing fanatics and the power they wield in the country, but they do hand it us on a plate sometimes.

Only last week the news broke that a science teacher, John Freshwater, in a school in Mount Vernon, Ohio was under the spotlight for telling pupils that ‘evolution follows theory and not fact’. In one of his lessons he scattered a few Lego blocks on a table and told pupils that however long you left them there they would not build themselves into anything more complex. He also apparently had posters of the Ten Commandments on the classroom walls. Following his sacking, he has been vociferously upheld, as a Christian martyr, by religious fundamentalists throughout the state.

The infamous 1926 ‘monkey trial’ formally known as State v. Scopes case in Tennessee, was an American legal case that tested the Butler Act making it unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals" in any Tennessee state-funded school and university. This trial was given a powerful evocation in the film Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy. But such battles are, amazingly, still being fought in a number of states and counties today. A whole number of states have either banned books in schools on evolution or have demanded equal prominence for those advocating wacky creationist theories.

Democracy US-style means that local legislators, who have much more power than their British equivalents, can decide on anything from rubbish collection to the books allowed in school libraries or bought by schools. Visitors to the USA are often bemused or horrified by the amount of ignorance of many ordinary North Americans about the wider world. We wonder why there are so many religious fundamentalists and right-wing pundits. But if you see what brain fodder many grow up with it is hardly surprising.

The battles are ongoing. On January 27 this year the Texas Education Board accidentally banned a popular children’s author in an amusing but sinister episode. The Board was determined to change the state’s social studies curriculum to marginalize progressive authors and ideas.

What do you imagine the authors of the children's book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and a 2008 book called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation have in common? Both are by an author called Bill Martin and, for now, neither is being added to the Texas schoolbook list. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram revealed that the popular children’s author Bill Martin Jr is among the latest to be accidentally axed.

In its haste to sort out the state’s social studies curriculum standards, the State Board of Education rejected children’s author Martin, who died in 2004, from a proposal for the third-grade section book list. A Board member cited books Martin had written for adults that contained “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.”

Trouble is, the Bill Martin Jr. who wrote the Brown Bear series never wrote anything political, unless you count a book that taught kids how to say the Pledge of Allegiance, his friends said. The book on Marxism was written by a different Bill Martin, a philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

But wait, it gets even better. For months, the Texas State Board of Education has been hearing from “experts” about the direction of the state’s social studies curriculum and textbook standards. The advice to the 15-member board — which is composed of 10 Republicans — included a demand for more references to Christianity and fewer mentions of civil rights leaders, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Its motto seems to be: out with civil rights leaders and in with national conservative leader, Phyllis Schafly and the infamous Joe McCarthy.

The State Board of Education took up these recommendations in a lengthy and heated debate. Here below some highlights of what the Republican-leaning board ended up deciding and the debates that went on:
It decided to add ‘causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s to the curriculum’, including the right-wing Phyllis Schafly and organisations like Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association. It voted against requiring Texas textbooks and teachers to cover the Democratic late senator Edward Kennedy, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayer, and leading Hispanic civil rights groups.

An amendment was carried to include documents that supported Cold Warrior Senator Joe McCarthy and his contention that the US government was infiltrated with communists in the 1950s.

Another Republican board member, unsuccessfully this time, tried to delete the names of monkey trial attorney Clarence Darrow and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey from the standard texts. Asked by another member about her opposition to Garvey, the board member explained that her concern was that ‘he was born in Jamaica and was deported’. The board also included a requirement ‘for students in U.S. history classes to differentiate between legal and illegal immigration.’

This debate in this School Board was important not only because it dictates how the state’s 4.7 million schoolchildren will be taught social studies, but also because Texas is one of the nation’s biggest buyers of textbooks. Publishers are often reluctant to produce different versions of the same material, and therefore create books in line with Texas’ standards. Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list. This is how the right wing determines not just what is bought and read in their state, but what publishers actually publish. No publisher is interested in producing books that will be banned, so they play safe and avoid anything that could be considered controversial.

These attempts at blatant censorship and brain-washing are not, unfortunately, confined to Texas. Similar battles are taking place in most states. Only recently Californian Schools were banned from stocking the Merriam Webster dictionary, which had been used for a number of years in fourth and fifth grade classrooms (for children aged nine to ten). A parent's complaint over a 'sexually graphic' definition has seen dictionaries removed from southern Californian schools because a pupil had apparently looked up the definition of oral sex. In Menifee Union school district, it has been pulled from shelves over fears that the ‘sexually graphic’ entry is ‘just not age appropriate’, according to the area’s local paper.
While some parents have praised the move – ‘it's a prestigious dictionary that's used in the Riverside County spelling bee, but I also imagine there are words in there of concern,’ said one. Others have raised concerns: ‘It is not such a bad thing for a kid to have the wherewithal to go and look up a word he may have even heard on the playground,’ ‘You have to draw the line somewhere. What are they going to do next, pull encyclopaedias because they list parts of the human anatomy like the penis and vagina?’ others said.

A panel is now reviewing whether the ban will be made permanent. The Merriam Webster dictionary joins an illustrious set of books that have been banned or challenged in the US, including Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which last year was suspended from and then reinstated to the curriculum at a Michigan school after complaints from parents about its coverage of graphic sex and violence, and titles by Khaled Hosseini and Philip Pullman, were included in the American Library Association's list of books that inspired most complaints last year.

I am reminded of Mark Twain’s wise words: ‘I never let my schooling interfere with my education’. If only more US students took that to heart.

1 comment:

  1. There was an interesting development this week--John Freshwater addressed the school board at its monthly meeting and gave the board an update on recent events related to his employment hearing.

    "I thought the hearing was about to end sometime last month but the proceeding changed again because somebody sent an anonymous letter containing some photographs of some items from my classroom," Freshwater said. "Last week another anonymous delivery was made that contained approximately 300 photographs of items that were in my room."
    (Source, YouTube video.)

    An article published by the Mount Vernon News provides some additional information regarding the missing evidence. (See the article "Anonymous source leads to 'black bag' find," by Samantha Scoles. )