If you haven't already, Mariah Blake's Washington Monthly story on the attempts of the Texas State Board of Education's ultra-right faction to rewrite the nation's textbooks is a must-read.
This would seem to be a state or local matter. It's not:
Don McLeroy is a balding, paunchy man with a thick broom-handle mustache who lives in a rambling two-story brick home in a suburb near Bryan, Texas. When he greeted me at the door one evening last October, he was clutching a thin paperback with the skeleton of a seahorse on its cover, a primer on natural selection penned by famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. We sat down at his dining table, which was piled high with three-ring binders, and his wife, Nancy, brought us ice water in cut-crystal glasses with matching coasters. Then McLeroy cracked the book open. The margins were littered with stars, exclamation points, and hundreds of yellow Post-its that were brimming with notes scrawled in a microscopic hand. With childlike glee, McLeroy flipped through the pages and explained what he saw as the gaping holes in Darwin’s theory. “I don’t care what the educational political lobby and their allies on the left say,” he declared at one point. “Evolution is hooey.” This bled into a rant about American history. “The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation,” McLeroy said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”
Views like these are relatively common in East Texas, a region that prides itself on being the buckle of the Bible Belt. But McLeroy is no ordinary citizen. The jovial creationist sits on the Texas State Board of Education, where he is one of the leaders of an activist bloc that holds enormous sway over the body’s decisions. As the state goes through the once-in-a-decade process of rewriting the standards for its textbooks, the faction is using its clout to infuse them with ultraconservative ideals. Among other things, they aim to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy, bring global-warming denial into science class, and downplay the contributions of the civil rights movement.
Battles over textbooks are nothing new, especially in Texas, where bitter skirmishes regularly erupt over everything from sex education to phonics and new math. But never before has the board’s right wing wielded so much power over the writing of the state’s standards. And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”
It gets worse. Much worse. At the very end, McLeroy, though he's encountered some setbacks, is bragging that "sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have."
This is, of course, an outrage. While I'm not particularly fond of the textbook style of learning, when trying to insure some basic level of free education for huge numbers of people, they're probably a necessity. If written well, they can provide a useful summary so students can pursue their own researches into more specific works, experiments and primary sources (sadly that's rarely how education works, but that's a rant for another day).
One interesting thing this illustrates is a fact of power that the far-right has grasped, but that their opponents generally have not. We wrongly associate power with high offices, big wins. Witness, for example, how third parties have disproportionately concentrated on quixotic runs for the Presidency instead of more useful organizing (imagine how their fortunes might have changed if the US' Green Party had, beginning in the '80s, concentrated first on securing the Northwest and Northeast at the local and state levels).
While the high posts are important, we live in a society vast and complex enough that there are all sorts of hidden pressure points such as, for example, the Texas State Board of Education. While Texas is generally a conservative state, the article makes it clear that the ultra-right faction has plenty of opposition, including from other conservatives, but got entrenched because they followed one of the oldest rules of conflict: attack where your opponent isn't.
So if you support science, sanity and the critical thinking necessary to a free society, the productive reaction isn't "It's an outrage that right-wing extremists control the country's textbooks!" but "why don't we?"