Well, it’s almost spring, no matter what some rodent may have seen or not seen. I have never quite understood what Groundhog Day was all about. After all, if you look at a calendar and you agree that spring will begin on the Vernal Equinox, then there are seven weeks between Groundhog Day and spring. If we are arguing about seven days before “the pools open”, we have a problem.
Now, if you look at the Julian calendar instead of the present day Gregorian calendar, it does clear things up. Instead of March 20 or 21st, the Vernal Equinox occurred on March 16th and the time frame between February 2nd and Spring is now six weeks and it really doesn’t matter whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow or not!
Now, there once was a reason for having Groundhog Day but that reason has been lost through the passage of time and the change in the way our calendar works. The same change, by the way, is the reason for April Fool’s Day but that is another story (see “A New Year, A New Plan”, “This New Year”, “A Degree of Irony”. What this does show is that we have turned a single day in February with some significance some three hundred years ago into a semi-major societal event. It also shows our willingness and readiness to accept things without questions (“because that’s the way it has always been done”) and without examination.
The reason for this piece was not to discuss meteorological predictions (though that may come into play), animal behavior, or the flaws in our calendar systems (we will wait until December 21, 2012 to do that). Rather it is about our willingness to accept things without question or examination.
You see, with the coming of spring, comes the annual Texas State Board of Education curriculum decision. Each year, this Board meets to consider changes in a given area of the curriculum and what textbooks will be used in the various classrooms in the state. For many people, this meeting would seem to have little or no consequence in their lives.
But as I pointed out once before (“The Differing Voices of Truth”), decisions made about the textbooks used in Texas do have a lasting impact on the textbooks used in whatever state you may live in. That is because California and Texas are the two largest textbook markets in the country and, essentially, what they decide is what the various textbook publishers put into the textbook.
California is the largest textbook market, but besides being bankrupt, it tends to be so specific about what kinds of information its students should learn that few other states follow its lead. Texas, on the other hand, was one of the first states to adopt statewide curriculum guidelines, back in 1998, and the guidelines it came up with were clear, broad and inclusive enough that many other states used them as a model in devising their own. And it has the money to spend on textbooks. Its $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country and is used to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually. This alone should be enough for various educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State (for reference purposes, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-t.html).
Whether you agree with this idea or not, the decisions regarding the content of textbooks made by the State Board of Education in Texas and its counterpart in California effectively decide content of the textbooks in the other forty-eight states. What the people of New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois, or North Carolina might think is of little matter in this regard.
Last spring, the issue in Texas was the inclusion or support of intelligent design (a decision which was defeated); this year, the issue is about the nature of the history of this country, whether or not our Founding Fathers were Christian or not, and who shall be considered worthy of study. Those favoring changes would like to see a more detailed study of various and sundry conservative icons, including but not limited to Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and Joseph McCarthy. The discussion for liberal icons such as Edward Kennedy, Caesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is to be somewhat limited or curtailed.
The problem, of course, is not which persons should or should not get included into a history curriculum. Whether a politician is a liberal or conservative is not the point; if they made a significant contribution to the development of this country, they should be studied. But it leads to a point where the amount of material covered exceeds the time available, i.e. the fixed volume problem. All subject areas are subject to this problem and it is clear that when the amount of information deemed worthy of knowing exceeds the amount of time available for learning, there are going to be problems.
And those problems are now starting to appear. A 2008 report entitled “Still at Risk: What Student’s Don’t Know, Even Now” indicates that students do not possess the basic knowledge necessary to succeed in this world or achieve their full potential as democratic citizens (http://www.commoncore.org/pressrelease-01.php). The authors of this report surveyed 1200 17-year-olds and found that:
· Nearly a quarter cannot identify Adolf Hitler, with ten percent thinking Hitler was a munitions manufacturer.
· More than a quarter think Christopher Columbus sailed after 1750.
· Fewer than half can place the Civil War in the correct half-century.
· A third did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion.
· Half have no idea what the Renaissance was.
· Nearly half think that The Scarlet Letter was either about a witch trial or a piece of correspondence.
For most people, these are shocking results, if for no other reason than we know the correct answers. But in light of the way education is treated today, they are not surprising answers. You cannot simply test a student for knowledge after they have completed a unit; you must test them after they have had the opportunity to utilize the information and make it a part of their lives.
As a society and individually, we face many great challenges today. We cannot even begin to think of solutions to these problems unless we change the manner in which our children learn. It makes matters worse when a few individuals try to force their view of history or science upon us and tell us that they know the truth.
There is no doubt in my mind that our Founding Fathers believed in God but I rather question the assumption that their beliefs were in line with many conservative Christians. Now, this is a point that I addressed a couple of years ago in “Don’t Know Much History” and somewhat alluded to in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”. It strikes me that those individuals would much rather try and tell others, especially the students in our classrooms today, what is important to know, no matter whether it is the truth or not, than it is to give the students the opportunity to think and learn for themselves.
Somewhere over the passage of time and education, I came to understand that education was a liberating force; that it provided the knowledge that would enable an individual to rise from where they were to where they wanted to go (http://wilderdom.com/experiential/SummaryJohnDeweyExperienceEducation.html). But it cannot be a liberating force if students are not given the opportunity to think and learn for themselves.
I was taught that the Constitution was a “living” document. It contained a message about how we were to govern ourselves through the generations; it was not meant to be fixed in time. Yet, many conservatives seem to prefer the term “enduring”; though I cannot tell you what that means. I suppose they would have us believe that we are supposed to use the same definitions about men and people that existed some two hundred years ago; but to do so would limit the nature of what this country stands for.
The very beginning of the Constitution, the Preamble, points that out. It begins “We, the People.” And in that phrase, we see the life of the document. When it was written, the only people for whom it actually applied to were the landed gentry of society, white males who owned properties. Women and minorities did not count. But over time, we have not changed the Preamble but rather who the people of this country are.
The same is true for the Declaration of Independence. Even though we know today that Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots may not have necessarily believed that “all men are created equal”, we have accepted that statement as a fundamental truth and have expanded it to include all men and all women.
And Abraham Lincoln’s statement that the government was “of the people, by the people, for the people” has not changed over the years of this country but we, the people, have constantly strived to make the definition inclusive. The proposals before the Texas State Board of Education try to make that definition exclusive and limited, limited by their definitions and their decisions.
It does not matter whether the writers of the Constitution favored a more state-oriented form of government or a Federal form of government; they all believed that the majority of people in this country were incapable of governing this country because they were uneducated. The design of the government (consider the Electoral College and how Senators were originally selected) had that very fact in mind.
But, if the Constitution was designed with the idea that only the educated can govern and if education is a liberating force, then the more educated the populace, the better the government will be.
When a group, any group, seeks to revise history or interpret facts in order that one’s agenda is the only agenda, it is the beginning of a dictatorship. To accept such a revision or interpretation without questioning is the beginning of the loss of one’s liberties through ignorance. When what education can do is limited, it only serves to maintain the status quo and insure that a selected elite will be in power.
We are on the verge of a Roman-style state, with an imperial government imposing its will on its citizens enslaved by economic fiat. But no matter how terrifying this form of state-sponsored terrorism might be or how horrifying the thought, it is built on fear and ignorance and as such can only last a short time. It may kill the bodies but it will not kill the spirit.
Fear and ignorance cannot survive for long in the light of knowledge and freedom.
And it does appear to me that those who would presume to state the faith of our Founding Fathers in spite of evidence to the contrary are also very much in opposition to what I feel is the true meaning of Christianity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us that if Christian teaching is not our guide in the use of freedom and God is denied, then all obligations and responsibilities that are sacred and binding on man are undermined. We must speak up and we must speak out when teaching leads not towards freedom but away from it. And I am afraid that is the direction that we are taking with the discussion that is taking place in Texas right now.
It is almost spring and with spring time comes new growth. But new growth requires careful thought and planning. If we are only interested in more of what we already have, then we will allow others to do the planting for us. It is clear that what these individuals want to plant will destroy liberty and freedom. If we desire liberty, if we desire freedom, then we have to plant the seeds of creativity. From such seeds, great things will come.