This month’s Texas State Board of Education debate over proposed new social studies curriculum standards provided many opportunities to see censorship at work. One of the most revealing instances of this came when state board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, proposed adding Margaret Sanger and John Dewey to a list of individuals for high school American history students to study.
McLeroy was proposing a revision to a standard dealing with the Progressive Era. That standard, which already included Upton Sinclair, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. DuBois, asked students to “evaluate the impact of muckrakers and reform leaders . . . on American society.”
The proposed revision was curious considering that McLeroy is a prominent member of the board’s religious-right faction. Sanger is perhaps best known for her advocacy for the right of women to control their own bodies and for access to effective contraception. In fact, Sanger founded what became Planned Parenthood — an arch-demon for the religious right today. And sure enough, board member Terri Leo, R-Spring — another religious-righter — expressed surprise at the recommendation. But in response, McLeroy didn’t even mention Sanger’s work on reproductive health. He simply wanted students to learn about some bad people (as he saw them):
“The Progressive Era was not all sweetness and light. Margaret Sanger and her followers promoted eugenics. John Dewey’s progressive education (ideas) all but eliminated academics in schools, replaced it with vocational education. I think it’s a balance.”
“Balance”? It was clear that McLeroy wanted students to learn only conservative criticisms of Sanger and Dewey. But Leo and other far-right board members worried that new textbooks might teach other things about the two — maybe even positive things. Said Leo:
“[The standard] just says ‘evaluate the impact.’ It could be, they could take a positive impact. To me [Sanger’s work] had a negative impact.”
Board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, suggested that since the board couldn’t require that textbooks focus on criticisms of Sanger and Dewey, perhaps it would be best if the curriculum standards included only people who had a generally “positive” impact on American society (however she might define that). The arguments from Leo and Dunbar won out, thus keeping Sanger and Dewey out of the standards.
Regardless of the specific arguments for and against the inclusion of Sanger and Dewey (and like all influential people in history, they had flaws as well as strengths), the debate clearly illustrated how state board members are politicizing education. The board’s far-right members are determined to craft a standards document that clearly reflects a particular political point of view. And they want a black-and-white portrayal of history — either someone was evil or good, patriotic or not, Christian or anti-Christian. If that requires censoring what students learn about people in history, well, so be it, right?
In short, too many board members want students to look at the world the way they do: with a simplistic and distorted perspective that is a better fit for indoctrination than education. If we care about the future of our children and our state, we can’t allow them to succeed.