Dunbar’s Distorted Views on Jefferson

by

The Texas State Board of Education is getting a lot of (well-deserved) flak for dropping Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the American Declaration of Independence, from the world history curriculum standards for public schools. And board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, who proposed striking Jefferson from those standards, is offering an absurd excuse for what she did.

Dunbar has been reminding reporters that Jefferson still appears in standards for American history and arguing that his inclusion in the world history standards was inappropriate:

“It’s just an issue of being germane. It was world history, and it was a list of political philosophers (from which Jefferson got removed). He’s mentioned in U.S. history and in government where you talk about the Founding Fathers and the political philosophers.”

Dunbar’s statement is both outrageously ignorant and deeply hypocritical.

The Library of Congress Web site notes Jefferson’s influence on the French Revolution and revolutionaries elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. He was even asked to consult in the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. From the Library of Congress Web site’s discussion of Jefferson:

“Recognized in Europe as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson quickly became a focal point or lightning rod for revolutionaries in Europe and the Americas. . . . Until his death Jefferson was convinced that ‘this ball of liberty . . . will roll round the world’ aided by the beacon of the Declaration of Independence.”

“Thomas Jefferson often consulted with Lafayette during the drafting of this French declaration of rights in July 1789. Jefferson’s immersion in the French Revolution and his influence on the Republican leaders can be seen in the surviving documents.”

Frankly, it’s beside the point that Jefferson still appears in the standards for American history. His inclusion is particularly germane to a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. Students should learn that Jefferson was one of America’s greatest political thinkers and that his ideas have inspired not just Americans but other people around the world in their struggles for freedom.

And isn’t Dunbar a proponent of teaching students about American exceptionalism? Of course she is. She and her board allies have spent months unfairly smearing teachers and scholars for allegedly downplaying American exceptionalism in history classrooms. Yet Jefferson’s ideals are among the things that have made America exceptional to many people seeking freedom — and Dunbar doesn’t want world history students to know that.

The truth is that Dunbar wants to shade from students the influence of Jefferson — a Deist who spoke of the importance of a “wall of separation” between church and state — and the Enlightenment ideals he promoted. She prefers that students learn instead about the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, two heroes of fundamentalist Christian conservatives. She succeeded in adding both to the specific world history standard from which she deleted Jefferson.

This is a yet another example of religious extremists like Dunbar dumbing down our children’s public school curriculum in favor of promoting an ideological agenda. It’s one thing to teach students about the Dark Ages, but it’s quite another to take their education back to those times. Yet the latter is what Dunbar and her State Board of Education partners are doing.

UPDATE: Now Gail Lowe, chair of the State Board of Education, has written an essay criticizing media coverage of the board’s decision to remove Thomas Jefferson from the world history curriculum standards. And naturally, her essay is being circulated in an e-mail from the board’s favorite right-wing gadfly, Donna Garner.

In her essay, Lowe calls media coverage of the controversy “woefully inaccurate and blatantly distorted.” She notes that Jefferson remains in American history and government standards from elementary to high school grades.

“No study of American history would be complete without his inclusion. That is why Thomas Jefferson warrants such strong emphasis in the TEKS standards the State Board of Education has approved.”

Yet Lowe predictably ignores the key issue: why drop Jefferson, one of America’s greatest political thinkers, from a world history standard on the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions since the 1700s? Moreover, why change the thrust of the standard by removing the reference to Enlightenment thinkers altogether from that standard? And why add, instead, John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, who were certainly not Enlightenment thinkers?

The reasons are clear to anyone who has followed the statements and actions of Lowe, Dunbar and the board’s other right-wingers over, especially, the past four years. They are obsessed with promoting their own ideological views in public school classrooms. And Jefferson and the Enlightenment, frankly, don’t fit neatly into that narrow worldview. They can’t drop Jefferson from the American history standards — even they realize doing so would be a step too far. But they will do all they can to downplay his influence elsewhere.

25 Responses to “Dunbar’s Distorted Views on Jefferson”

  1. Charles Says:

    Eloquently said TFN.

    However, it has been said more simply and elegantly by a master poet. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, his Bill of Rights, his idea of separating church and state, and so many more of his thoughts that have influenced the course and politics of world history are summarized in a stanza from a short poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled the “Concord Hym.” The words are emblazoned on the long-famous statue called The Minute Man (done by Daniel Chester French) that sits in Concord, Massachusetts.

    These four lines shoot down everything they said about deleting Jefferson:

    By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
    Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
    Here once the embattled farmers stood,
    And fired the shot heard ’round the world.”

  2. Beverly Kurtin Says:

    THIS IS A CONFIDENTIAL LOOK AT WHAT GOES ON IN THE TSBOE.

    It shows exactly the kind of intelligent, well thought out reasoning we have all come to expect from them:

    http://www.itisyour.biz/sid

    Feel free to pass it along so we can all be proud of what is going on in OUR names.

  3. KateNonymous Says:

    When I was at college, I majored in history and took the required introductory survey in Western Civilization. My professor–himself European in origin–spent the better part of one class talking about Jefferson’s importance and influence on Western thought.

  4. Gordon Fowkes Says:

    President John F Kennedy held a dinner that included some of the most talented artists and thinkers of the time. His remarks to the guests was to the effect that “there hasn’t been so much talent a dinner here in the White House since Thamas Jefferson did when, dining by himself.

    I have read posts by the Righteous Right to effect that Lincoln was a Marxist because Marx wrote him a letter when Marx was a newspaperman in New York. I am at a loss as to what aggregious error Jefferson is accused of. After all, he kept his slaves, one of whom he bore a child with whose progeny meet with the other half of the family today. That ought to qualify Jefferson as a bastion of the South.

    So what’s the problem.

  5. Joe Lapp Says:

    To argue this effectively, I think we need a really short, easy-to-understand counter-argument. If it’s not pointed, it doesn’t cut.

    What significant point do we lose in striking Jefferson from this standard? How do we know that point isn’t covered elsewhere.

    My understanding was that, with this change, students are no longer required to read Jefferson’s writings, so student’s wouldn’t learn Jefferson’s opinion on the separation of church and state. Is my understanding wrong?

  6. Ben Says:

    TFN, is there a way for you to add a Recent Comments list over to one side, like PZ does on Pharyngula? Just a thought.

  7. trog69 Says:

    Joe Lapp, here’s the pertinent portion of TFN’s article addressing your concerns:

    The truth is that Dunbar wants to shade from students the influence of Jefferson — a Deist who spoke of the importance of a “wall of separation” between church and state — and the Enlightenment ideals he promoted. She prefers that students learn instead about the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, two heroes of fundamentalist Christian conservatives. She succeeded in adding both to the specific world history standard from which she deleted Jefferson.

    This is so obvious that reporters should be asking her why she thinks anyone would believe her lame excuses.

    I’ll be less than surprised to see a Conservapedia-style reworking of the DOI and the Constitution to more ably adapt to a more rightwing wishful thinking list. Because we’ve always been at war with Eurasia, which means we love them because was is peace.

  8. Edd Doerr Says:

    Thomas Jefferson out, Jefferson Davis in!!!!! Welcome to the loony topsy-turvy little world of Cynthia DUMBar. As a former public high school history teacher, with a granddaughter in a Texas public school, I am utterly appalled. A recent political cartoon shows the defenders of the Alamo firing rifles and yelling “Just wait til the Texas SBOE rewrites this story”. — Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty

  9. Gary Says:

    Jefferson wrote the effin’ Declaration of Independence, for pity’s sake!
    How could you not include him?

  10. Joe Lapp Says:

    trog69: Then we’re missing half the argument. We need to outright say that the other mentions of Jefferson do not introduce students to Jefferson’s views on the Enlightenment and the separation of church and state. If his views on the Enlightenment are significant, we need to say why.

    If Jefferson is a deist who wrote about the separation of church and state but still appears in the standards, we can’t complain that he was removed because he is a deist who wrote about the separation of church and state. You see, he still appears in the standards.

    We have to complain about what was somewhere in the standards but no longer is (for the case of something being removed).

    It may be important that Jefferson had a significant impact on the philosophy of revolutions outside the U.S., but this point is obscure and seemingly not central to what we or the far-right care about. It doesn’t seem worth arguing. We need to keep the explanation short and to the point of what people really care about — mainstream and far right.

  11. trog69 Says:

    What is really bugging me is that the supposedly less-ideologically-deluded Republicans on the board decided that omitting Jefferson and inserting Christian leaders was a great idea. Are they admitting that they prefer mindless lockstep policy-making to actual leadership?

  12. Joe Lapp Says:

    trog69: Yeah, we can add that one too. They replaced Jefferson with two theologians and a judge who wrote arguing against Catholicism.

    In my mind, it’s still a bit of a mystery why they removed Jefferson here, unless this was the only place in the TEKS that would have introduced students to the author of the “wall of separation” language. I don’t know this to be the case though — am hoping someone else will do the homework.

  13. trog69 Says:

    “We need to keep the explanation short and to the point of what people really care about — mainstream and far right.”

    You mean, kinda dumb it down a bit for the masses? Again, TFN’s very succinct appraisal of Jefferson’s accomplishments regarding enlightenment philosophy is easily understood. Who do you think should be responsible for imparting this “obscure” information?

  14. Joe Lapp Says:

    trog69: Withholding the “wall of separation” writings from students upsets me greatly. Withholding Jefferson’s influence on the political revolutions in foreign countries really does little for me. Maybe it should, but I doubt I’m that much different from the masses. His influence may be important, but it does not have the magnitude that people have been attributing to this removal of the reference to Jefferson. It just doesn’t help us.

    My questions seem unanswered:

    (1) Are students introduced to Jefferson’s “wall of separation” writings elsewhere?
    (2) Would they be introduced to those writings were Jefferson left in this amendment?
    (3) Why else might the far-right want to remove this reference to Jefferson?

  15. Cytocop Says:

    Joe Lapp, I’m not a history expert, but I can take a stab at answering your questions. Here goes:
    1. Probably not.
    2. Probably not.
    3. Probably because it does not square with the far right’s view of U.S. history, or what they want taught in U.S. history.

    Note: Y’all gotta stop repeating this phrase “church and state.” You’re rousing the wrath of Professor Garman. Remember he is a Constitutional expert: he’ll tell you “church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. And remember how he loves to show off how well he can quote Webster’s dictionary.

    (I note with interest that Prof. Garman has no problem with the blurring of the boundary between religion and government. For example, he has not written one word here about the faith-based initiative, which is unconstitutional).

    And trog69 wrote: “What is really bugging me is that the supposedly less-ideologically-deluded Republicans on the board decided that omitting Jefferson and inserting Christian leaders was a great idea. Are they admitting that they prefer mindless lockstep policy-making to actual leadership?”

    Answer to Trog69: In a word, yes. I have seen no evidence that “less ideologically-deluded Republicans” exist.

  16. Joe Lapp Says:

    Okay, trog69 and Cytocop, I’m convinced that including Jefferson here is important. The press release made it clear to me. I’m just at a loss for what the far right is trying to accomplish. I posted my confusion to the new blog entry. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

  17. Cytocop Says:

    The Far Right is hell-bent on teaching that America is a Christian Nation, and that its Founders were all Protestant fundamentalist or evangelical Christians. They refuse to accept that the Founders were Unitarian Universalists and Deists. Washington was Episcopalian but only nominally so.

    Jefferson is well known to have not been a Christian in any conventional sense of the word. He made pretty clear in his writings what he thought of Christianity and most any religion for that matter. So including him in U.S. history just won’t do.

  18. Joe Lapp Says:

    Well, here’s a twist I can buy:

    The far-right cannot accept teaching students that a person could have such a huge positive impact on the world if that person was a deist. Being deist, they want to smother his accomplishments and potential to be a role model.

    However, this only makes sense if Jefferson’s appearances elsewhere in the standards aren’t putting him in such an important role.

  19. Charles Says:

    What is the far right trying to accomplish by deleting Jefferson? If there never was any such thing as “separation of church and state,” you then have to erase the name of the person who never said it from kids’ minds.

  20. Rocket Mike Says:

    The Christian Nation folks allude to the colonials as being sweet Christians. They take the listing of most of the leaders as members of churches and try to say it is indicative of their religiosity. However, the truth in most cases was the leaders had no choice, whether it was legally or socially. In colonial America, heresy was a capital crime in many colonies. An inconvenient truth that the Christian Nation folks would like for you to ignore.

    Take Maryland, a refuge for some brands of Christianity that weren’t welcome in other colonies, as an example of tolerance and look at its example The Maryland Toleration Act (1649). Here is a selected paragraph to show the gist of what their idea of toleration really was:

    That whatsoever person or persons within this Province and the Islands thereunto helonging shall from henceforth blaspheme God, that is Curse him, or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to bee the sonne of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the father sonne and holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the said Three persons of the Trinity or the Unity of the Godhead, or shall use or utter any reproachfull Speeches, words or language concerning the said Holy Trinity, or any of the said three persons thereof, shalbe punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires.

    I think the Dunbar Christian Nation folks want us to revert back to those good old days and let them be in charge.

  21. Cytocop Says:

    I think the Dunbar Christian Nation folks want us to revert back to those good old days and let them be in charge.

    Obviously. They have as much as admitted that is their goal. As a Jew, I’ll be among the first on their Hit List.

  22. Gordon Fowkes Says:

    There is another explanation for the expulsion of Jefferson for the Texas view of history. He took a pair of scissors and a razor to the Bible cutting out what he thought was nonsense. The result is called the Jefferson Bible.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jefferson_Bible

  23. trog69 Says:

    Good morning, Mr. Lapp.

    I admit to being leery as to your intent with your questions, so to your most recent comment I’ll say that yes, this instance is not a major revision, in teh grand scheme of things. It’s just a blatant example of how desperate the fundamentalists are to inject their brand of Christianity into every aspect of humanity. I doubt there is anyone who supports this omission that has any history education or background; as with their other amendments, it’s just a ‘whole-cloth’ determination to expel secular thought from the children’s curriculum, and inserting not just Christian theologians as heroes, but fundamentalism as the very essence of being an American. Mr. Fawkes example is just one sin amongst an amorphous cloud of Jefferson’s liberalism/secularism that buzzes around the ideologues heads as anathema to their beliefs and thus cannot be included in the curriculum.

    Cytocop, as a worshiper of Thor, I remain fearful for my life as well. I mean, who do you think provided the hammer to pound in those nails?😉

  24. trog69 Says:

    Sorry, I meant that I _was_leery. My fears are now assuaged. I’ll buy the next round.

  25. Cytocop Says:

    To Trog69: Thor provided the hammer; according to Christianity, “the Jews” were the executioners who used the hammer. Never mind the fact that most Jews either (A) loved Jesus (he was like a rock star according to the New Testament), or (B) didn’t know Jesus existed. (Jews were scattered all over the Mediterranean world and beyond by the 1st century).

    Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, used the Jefferson Bible with which to be sworn into office. The Jefferson Bible is a legitimate means for that purpose. No doubt the Christian Right will be sure to eliminate that if they get their way.

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