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Chillin’ with the Texas Board of Education

The Texas Board of Education recently approved changes to the state's high school social studies curriculum. The Board also has responsibility for reviewing and approving textbooks for use in Texas schools according to whether they meet its curriculum standards, so its move will effectively force textbook publishers to revise their presentation of American history. The curriculum revisions are controversial because many observers believe that they are motivated by, and reflect, an extreme conservative view of American history.

Here are the changes in one representative section of the revised curriculum. New American conservative heroes and causes have been introduced here, and those represented in the existing curriculum have been recast in a distinctly positive light (additions are indicated by underlining; deletions by strikethrough):

    History. The student understands the impact of political, economic, and social factors in the U.S. role in the world from the 1970s through 1990. The student is expected to:
        describe Richard M. Nixon’s leadership role in the normalization of relations with China and the policy of détente;
        describe Ronald Reagan’s leadership in domestic and international policies , including such as Reaganomics and Peace Through Strength;
        compare the impact of energy on the American way of life over time;
        describe U.S. involvement in the Middle East such as support for Israel, the Camp David Accords, the Iran-Contra Affair, Marines in Lebanon, and the Iran Hostage Crisis; and
        describe the causes, key organizations, and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association; and
        describe significant societal issues of this time period.

It matters morally, of course, what we teach and do not teach our children. Indoctrinating them with a version of history tailored to fit a set of pre-existing political biases may harm their ability to become independent citizens who are able to autonomously form and pursue their own preferred conceptions of the good life. Moreover, overtly politicizing the curriculum, or even just having politicized public disputes about it like the one generated in this instance, may itself be harmful; children and parents observing this may be moved to conclude that high school "education" is really just political indoctrination – and may well decide that it's not worth making any effort to "succeed" at it.

I could conclude the post now, in the light of these considerations and of the nature of the curriculum changes such as those shown in the example above, with the finding that the Texas Board of Education has acted immorally. But this claim would convince nobody who is not already convinced that the Board's curriculum changes amount to politicizing the curriculum. Conservatives on the Board claim to detect a liberal bias in the existing curriculum and public education system in general, and claim to be putting balance back into the curriculum. If we take these claims at face value, we must accept that they could agree entirely about the importance of teaching our children rightly, and yet still believe that they are doing nothing wrong.

How should we then seek to resolve the dispute between the Board's conservatives and others who find their curriculum changes improper and immoral? The dispute is grounded in part in disagreement about the objective nature of the historical truth, and in part in disagreement about the best way to teach children the facts. There are, of course, qualified experts both in teaching and in history, and we can distinguish them easily by their credentials and experience. So why not turn to the best qualified experts we can find: that is, people with terminal degrees in history and education and with the highest levels of professional recognition in these fields?

The Texas Board did, indeed, seek advice from experts in coming to its decision. The enormous gap between the credentials possessed by some of the "experts" conservative members of the Board selected to support their views and those selected by more liberal members is a strong indication that the vast majority of experts do not tend to agree with the conservatives. So is this observation enough to resolve the dispute? Not quite. The problem is that the conservatives also hold beliefs (less charitably: they hold a conspiracy theory) that makes their point of view quite immune to correction by expert criticism. The academy, conservatives assert, is completely dominated by a self-selecting group of unpatriotic liberals who are motivated, above all, to push their secular liberal views onto everyone else, and in particular to convert students into liberals.  (One conservative Christian member of the Board, attorney Cynthia Dunbar, home-schooled her own children, and has described sending children to state run schools as "throwing them in the enemy's flames"; another conservative Christian Board member, former Board Chair and dentist Don McLeroy, has said "somebody has got to stand up to experts" on evolution). So in the eyes of the conservatives, the experts (with the exception of those few who demonstrate their "fairness" and "balance" by accepting extreme conservative views and decisively repudiating liberalism), simply cannot be trusted!

If the conservatives are convinced that the experts are biased against them, who shall we appoint as an impartial referee that can be agreed on by all sides? There is, of course, no such referee to be found. It will be a natural reaction for reasonable observers to fulminate against the conservative members of the Board, to decry their unreasonable decisions, to mock their contempt for expert qualifications, and finally to insist that we *must* listen to experts rather than enact our prejudices – what better alternative principle for decision making could there possibly be? But however frustrated we may become, we cannot force other people to accept our conclusions, as Robert Nozick has pointed out in some memorable remarks about the nature of philosophical argument:

The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premisses you have to or must believe the conclusion…

Though philosophy is carried on as a coercive activity, the penalty philosophers wield is, after all, rather weak.  If the other person is willing to bear the label of "irrational" or "having the worse arguments", he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief.  He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations: "What do you mean, you're willing to be irrational?  You shouldn't be irrational because . . . " And although the philosopher is embarrassed by his inability to complete this sentence in a noncircular fashion–he can only produce reasons for accepting reasons–still, he is unwilling to let his adversary go.

Wouldn't it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence?  Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddha-like.  Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies.  How's that for a powerful argument?  Yet, as with other physical threats ("your money or your life"), he can choose defiance… (Philosophical Explanations, p.4)

Nozick recommends that we take up a less coercive approach to philosophizing:

Philosophical arguments can serve to elaborate a view, to delineate its content. Considering objections, hypothetical situations, and so on, does help to sharpen a view. But need all this be done in an attempt to prove, or in arguing? … The valuable person cannot be fashioned by committing philosophy upon him. (Philosophical Explanations, p.5)

Instead of the confrontational approach, we can attempt instead to explain and make connections clear, and invite the other party to philosophize themselves and come to reach agreement with us by their own route.

Liberals should, I believe, adopt a similar, more relaxed attitude in response to the Texas Board of Education, and not just because arguing against an opponent who refuses to concede no matter what is futile. It would, more importantly, be politically astute for liberals to calmly express their disagreement with the Board, their reasons for disagreeing, and their confidence that the voters will choose to deselect the offending Board members who politicize the curriculum and thereby force the Board to change course in due time. This is in part because of the prevalence and power of the myth of liberal elitism in America. As Thomas Frank has convincingly argued in his excellent book What's the Matter with Kansas? (published in the UK under the title What's the Matter with America?), the popularity of right wing conservatism in parts of the United States depends upon the arousal and continuation of a kind of class conflict. But in this particular class conflict, instead of money, it is perceived elitism (e.g. claiming academic expertise and the right to impose one's undemocratic views on others, being a Hollywood celebrity, being an "activist" judge) along with certain kinds of aesthetic taste and culture (eating French food, sipping lattes, driving a volvo) that stand in for markers of membership of the oppressor (that is, liberal) class. The power of these stereotypes means that on this issue (or on any of the classic cultural "wedge" issues that play into American elections nowadays), attempts to appeal to secular learning, expertise or credentials play right into the narrative of the conservative backlash, and further reinforce it by providing more supposed evidence that elitist liberals do not respect the democratic choices and values of ordinary "real Americans", but seek to oppress and overrule them because they take their own opinions to be superior.

Liberals should remember that they cannot, in fact, oppress or overrule anyone by force of argument alone, no matter how important the subject or how impressive their arguments. They can do no better than to state their disagreement, present their evidence and arguments to the public, and reaffirm their commitment to let the voters decide. And so they should, in response to the provocations of the Texas Board of Education and the rest of the extreme conservative movement.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I agree with the conclusion, but I am tempted to conclude that it is more tactical than rigorously derived from the premisses and arguments. There is a discomforting Manicheanism running through the post, with liberals being logical, informed and (dreadful word) “experts”, while conservatives are slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging morons. As Ian Dury said, “You’re normal and kind, with a well-stocked mind; a blockhead can’t think very far.”
    While the Texas conservatives’ behaviour appears to us in England as absurdly biased and anti-intellectual, there are plenty of examples of similar activities by self-styled liberals both here and in the US. Like most people I know, my views would be described as liberal on some issues, conservative on others, and both at once on several, for instance mandatory ID cards. The terms liberal and conservative are not mutually exclusive in real life, and enforcement of ideas on others is utterly illiberal, whether or not one could make arguments in its favour in certain circumstances.

  2. Hi David,
    – “Most experts are liberals [on this issue]” does not entail “Most liberals are experts [on this issue]”.
    – I could have written about a different example in which the liberals were less logical and well-informed than the conservatives. That just doesn’t happen to be the case at the Texas Board of Education. Are you saying it’s somehow wrong or “Manichean” to write a piece about a case which criticizes only one group of people involved, because only one group of people happens to deserve criticism in the case in question?

    NB I should maybe have made clear for non-U.S. readers that I was using the term “liberal” in its popular American sense in the post – meaning roughly “left-winger” or “progressive”, not the same thing as classical liberal, nor the opposite of “illiberal”. In this usage, “liberal” does mean the opposite of conservative, but of course it is still possible (as David points out) to have conservative views on some issues and liberal views on others.

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