SBOE Removes Thomas Jefferson, Blames Media

Gail Lowe
Gail Lowe

After public outrage about the State Board of Education's removal of Thomas Jefferson from a list of influential philosophers, a clearly irritated board has released a statement complaining of "erroneous" media reports and detailing other references to Jefferson in the social studies standards. 

“The only individual mentioned more times in the curriculum standards than Thomas Jefferson is George Washington,” the release, issued Friday, quotes board chair Gail Lowe as saying. “We expect students at the elementary level, in middle school and in high school to study the Founding Fathers and to be well versed in their contributions to our country. That includes Thomas Jefferson and his legacy."

The board doesn't call out any particular media report, and I suspect the problem has more to do with reports that might be called incomplete, but not wrong. Even the slapstick treatment of the board's revisions by the Colbert Report got the board's move technically correct, noting it removed Jefferson from a list of "revolutionary thinkers," which is exactly what the board did. Colbert simply didn't provide the context that Jefferson was mentioned elsewhere. (Colbert, of course, is comedy and can't be held to journalistic standards.) The fact is the frontline journalists at the board meeting — as opposed to many other quasi-journalists in the hyper-opinionated blogosphere, both left- and right-wing — generally ignored the Jefferson amendment. None of the news stories from the day in The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News (which share state coverage), the Austin American-Statesman, and The Texas Tribune (that's me) mentioned the Jefferson amendment, much less asserted he had been removed entirely from the curriculum. 

But here's what the board did: Early in the day, member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, successfully moved to remove Thomas Jefferson from a list of philosophers in the World History standards, and added religious thinkers including John Calvin and Thomas Acquinas, and Sir William Blackstone, an influential English judge who wrote a lasting treatise on common law. Dunbar’s amendment also cut a reference to the Enlightenment, an 18th century movement emphasizing science and reason over religion and tradition. 

The Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that monitors what it calls right-wing extremism, responded to the cutting of Jefferson from the philosophers list with a quote on his influence from the Library of Congress: "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." The Library of Congress notes, in particular, Jefferson's influence on revolutionaries in France. 

The New York Times, in its story on the board's vote, did mention the Jefferson amendment, accurately, but did not add that Jefferson is covered elsewhere in the curriculum. But it also provided important context about the addition of religious thinkers — which the state board conspicuously leaves out of its plaintive news release. The Times also suggests a quite plausible motivation for the amendment. Here's what the paper published: 

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)

“The Enlightenment was not the only philosophy on which these revolutions were based,” Ms. Dunbar said.

By ignoring the context of the amendment in its release, the board essentially committed the same infraction of incompleteness that they accuse the unnamed media of committing. And that's a pattern with many board members: making controversial changes without explaining their reasons, then carping at the media for alleged misinterpretations. Lowe recently lashed out that media, again without naming specific outlets, for alleged errors in reporting the board's intent to remove labor leader Cesar Chavez and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall from the standards. Her column, at texasinsider.org, reads as if the media made this up out of thin air. She never details what actually caused the stir — nor the board's primary role in it. Here's the truth: Board members appointed two controversial evangelists among six "expert reviewers" of their curriculum, David Barton, of the Aledo-based Wallbuilders, which disputes that America's founders ever intended to divide church and state; and Massachusetts-based preacher Peter Marshall, whose organization advocates the "urgent necessity of recovering the original American vision, and the truth about our Christian heritage,” according to its website. Marshall and Barton made the recommendations to cut Chavez and Thurgood Marshall, in writing, in public documents given to the board. (As a side note, isn't it odd how Christianity and the suppression of minority history in America would seem completely unrelated, yet so often occupy the same ideological and political space?). Only after outrage erupted over the recommendations did board members reassure the public that they wouldn't listen to their own favored experts, at least not on this point. 

Lowe — a newspaper editor by trade — knows all of this better than anyone: She, along with Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, appointed Barton. Two other social conservatives, Dunbar and Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, appointed Peter Marshall. Lowe is right on one point — some less-than-thorough media outlets, and especially political blogs, sometimes leave out vital context in reporting the board's rewriting of American history. But they sure aren't helped in that mission by the board members themselves, who obfuscate as often as inform. Another favorite pastime of board conservatives is chalking up allegations of shoddy reporting to liberal bias. And with that, I leave you with a quote from one last source — The National Review, one of the nation's oldest and most respected conservative journals. From its April 5 issue:

"Republican moderates are always on the lookout for a chance to throw social conservatives under the bus. But sometimes the so-cons jump, as in the recent fight over Texas's history curriculum and textbook standards. A faction on the state board of education led by Don McLeroy -- a young-Earth, Adam-rode-a-brontosaurus type straight out of liberal caricature -- has been on a jihad against academic liberals, Charles Darwin, and . . . Thomas. (T. J. will no longer have a place in a lesson about Enlightenment writers' effects on revolutions.) Texas's curriculum practices are clumsy, with officeholders in Austin micromanaging mentions of particular individuals and groups: not William Travis and the Rangers, but Phyllis Schlafly and the Heritage Foundation. (Love 'em both, but jeez.) The conservatives protest that they're just beating the liberals at their own game -- "I'll see your MALDEF and raise you an NRA!" -- but they are not covering themselves in glory. In the battle over education, victory for conservatives should mean depoliticizing the textbooks, not politicizing them along conservative lines. Some sensible conservatives in Texas agreed, and Republican Thomas Ratliff defeated McLeroy in the March election."

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