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Texas madrassas

Posted by Feb 14th, 2010.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about in the world of education…

This article from today’s New York Times Magazine is sobering, if not downright terrifying. The Texas State Board of Education, and its near-majority bloc of hard-core Christian fundamentalists, wants history textbooks rewritten to state that

the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions.

What makes this more than just a depressing footnote is the fact that Texas, thanks to its size and statewide curriculum,  wields disproportionate influence over textbook publishers. Apparently the publishers lack the spine to stand up to the looney-tunes stuff coming out of the Texas state board, so kids in Colorado could soon be reading history textbooks promoting this pinched, dangerous and incendiary worldview.

I fail to see how this differs in any substantial way from the Taliban, madrassas and calls for holy war against the infidel. In degree, yes. But it’s still early in the process.

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7 Responses to “Texas madrassas”

  1. david says:

    I know that Christian fundamentalism has had increasing influence over the last couple of decades, but the increasing individual liberties championed by Western societies arouses the ire of religious fundamentalists of all stripes. They see the hegemony of the individual as a decadent and dangerous distraction from the service of the Divine, which must be upheld by an entire society in order to receive the Divine’s protection and blessing.

    They also tend to want the state to serve as a mechanism for promoting and coordinating religious activity. All our ills are, in this view, the result of a kind of idol worship, of placing ourselves above God. They don’t have to look far to find developments that look like evidence to support their view.

    The question is: Does a society that sees individual liberties as sacred, and in which everyone can do as they please as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, have the backbone to confront this development? The devotion of religious extremism to the cause of indoctrination makes education the main battlefield.

  2. Cush says:

    Simple solution … DON’T USE A TEXTBOOK! The best teachers are those who take their district’s curriculum and make it their own. No one — except maybe first year teachers — should be that dependent on some silly, sterile text.

    • DJ Shoaf says:

      It is in our students’ best interests for us to deliver research-based curriculum and not just instruction that is “winged” from our memories. Is anyone surprised this religious stuff is coming out of Bible-belt Texas? This is familiar territory for them (no real surprise, same ‘ol, same ‘ol…). With a keen focus on unbiased research-based teaching, learning and assessment ALL students can excel regardless of their religious background. As teachers we are the torch holders for freedom of information and we should not be sidetracked by various (and frequent) efforts to get us off-track from this ominous yet important commitment.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Alan. What a great initiative for us to rally behind, huh?

  4. Ben says:

    Thanks for sharing the link, Alan. Though you’ll probably not be shocked to learn I find many of your characterizations overstated, and more importantly, a big piece of the picture missing. As a Christian, conservative, someone who follows closely the workings of politics and education, and a near-historian, I hope my comments add some additional perspective.

    In the story, I think the soundest voices belonged to Richard Brookhiser and Martin Marty. What they point to, if not state explicitly, is a very real academic deficit and imbalance that opens the doors wide for the sort of populist backlash going on in Texas. Think about it this way: Another historian of a generation past, the recently deceased Howard Zinn, ground U.S. history through a similarly narrow ideological strainer — albeit a Marxist one.

    How is Zinn (along with many, many others of his stripe) received? Largely with fawning admiration, despite the avowed bias and distortions in his work. I would argue that an academia in history and the social sciences that is both largely insular and far more secularist and anti-capitalist than the average American has helped to fuel the movement you now are so critical of.

    Religious thought and practice is largely discounted, overlooked or patronized in many mainstream textbooks covering American history. In addition, there has been the absurd P.C. overemphasis on Founders as “racist”, “sexist”, etc., though some real strides have been made to achieve some greater balance in this area.

    Not that the people with more rigid and oversimplified Christian views of the nation’s Founding are inherently dangerous … of course not. But they couldn’t achieve political power in such force without current academia acting as a well-earned foil dominated by the “Progressive Left.”

    So yes, I have problems with some of the textbooks already in use — including Zinn, who is a known favorite among many HS AP & IB courses here in Colorado. We need more balance. You’re right to an extent to be concerned about the effects of the overreaction. But not acknowledging the serious flaws with the status quo leaves your analysis incomplete.

    Then there’s the problem of the Texas governmental construct to begin with. I would argue that too much power is centralized in the State Board to dictate curriculum. At least Colorado leaves these decisions to the local school board — which is closer to having it right from a Jeffersonian, libertarian point of view. I go a step further and urge for greater parental control and choice.

    Part of the problem as well appears to be confusion over the definition of the term “Christian fundamentalism” as appears in David’s comment. The term as used is distinct from the historical theological definition that arose in the 1910s and 1920s, and has assumed a meaning more closely attached to a political philosophy increasingly comfortable with state power. I am curious to know the author’s and commenters’ views on just how significant a bloc of the American public they believe this “Christian fundamentalist” strain represents. Because the serious invocation of the terms “madrassa” and “holy war” defies all authentically Christian philosophical and historical trends.

    I would also argue with David that our society necessarily “sees individual liberties as sacred” — especially given among other things the current war on drugs, the plethora of seatbelt / helmet / cell phone while driving laws, a growing tax and debt burden on businesses & families, and a (albeit waning) debate over increased government interference in health insurance and our medical system. My own views and yours, I suspect, are conflicted to the extent that we are more purely “libertarian” on some issues than others — including the role of religion in government.

    But that is the legacy of the Founders and the Constitution — informed in no small part by Protestant Christianity. To my fellow Christians, I urge their attention on the theme of “Freedom Nationally, Virtue Locally.” Our Founders certainly did not want a Christian government, but they certainly didn’t want the overreaching, out-of-control behemoth we have now either. But there’s also no doubt that they also strongly believed freedom and a limited, effective government could long endure without a people largely imbued with religious virtue. Far more often than not, a national government that seeks to inculcate virtue of any ilk will end up reaping the opposite effect.

    Freedom and virtue must spring up from below, through individual persuasion. The law follows.

    • Alan Gottlieb says:


      Thanks for the thoughtful response. You make valid points. Though not the student of history textbooks you appear to be, I would acknowledge there may be some imbalance toward political correctness and ignoring the role of religion in U.S. history textbooks. Although I’m a Jew, I’m comfortable with the tenets of Christianity — my wife is a priest — and would also be comfortable with teaching more about the role of religion in our society and as a shaper of history.

      However, what we’re talking about here is more than a backlash against political correctness or imbalanced history texts. There’s a huge difference between having history texts explore the role of religion in society and as an influence on historical actors, and attempting to distort human and natural history with highly questionable, if not crackpot, demonstrably wrong pseudo-science. What the bloc on the Texas board wants is frightening to me — it smacks of totalitarianism in ways that set off alarm bells. So yes, perhaps I’m overstating, but I’m doing so deliberately, and for a reason.

      There is a vein of pious intolerance that runs through this country and it history. It’s no less dangerous here than in Afghanistan, or in Germany in the 1930s. The numbers may not be huge, but I find this movement dangerous — a real threat to our liberty. I’m sure you understand that I’m not suggesting that all Christians, or fundamentalist Christians, fit this description. It’s a small, but growing sub-group, and in the current climate, it’s poised to grow exponentially.

      • Ben says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Alan. To clarify, I was not suggesting that the current P.C. culture or state of textbook imbalance justifies the approach you rightly decry, only that it helps to explain where it’s coming from. It would be better if the academic Left were better at self-policing and more open to intellectual diversity that would yield greater textbook balance, etc.

        Nor did I ever think you were trying to use a broad brush to paint all Christians or any group of Christians. I too am trying to get my mind around how clearly to define what “it” is and to get a sense of how many people it represents. Although I am in many ways sympathetic to the conservative Christian worldview, I would continue to argue strenuously against the heavy-handed mixing of church & state.

        The danger of dogma on both sides plus state power should be attuned to and addressed without fear. In America of all places, we are most extraordinarily blessed with the heritage and tools to rebut them civilly, etc.

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