The Revisionaries: How the Culture Wars Converged on Textbooks

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

The Revisionaries, Scott Thurman’s debut documentary, focuses its lens on the fierce political and cultural battle waged by the Texas Board of Education over textbook content. Texas’ size makes it a huge textbook market, and the standards set by the Board about everything from evolution to Thomas Jefferson’s role in revolutionary thinking influence textbook publishing nationwide, a fact Christian conservatives have exploited by taking advantage of off-season, low-turnout elections to stack the fifteen-member board with right-wing candidates. Thurman, an agile and empathic director, follows both the most risible members of the Board and their most committed opponents through the two-year revision of textbook standards, and manages to turn this prolonged policy battle into an suspenseful, engaging and infuriating eighty-three minutes.

In the middle of this drama is Chairman Don McLeroy, he of the infamous statement, “Education is too important not to be politicized,” a line he clearly wants back more and more each time it’s repeated to him. McElroy, a dentist near College Station and a “young earth creationist” (read: humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together starting 6,000 years ago and no earlier) provided Thurman with a stunning amount of access, from which both he and the film benefited: far from the villain of these proceedings, McLeroy becomes their site of their moral investigation.

Loquacious, eager and effusive, McLeroy comes off as less a machinating conservative than a genuine social experiment: is it possible for a Christian conservative to effect a seemingly sincere desire to help the children of his state without completely polluting the education process with his beliefs? The answer’s no, but McLeroy is so open and intriguing that he gets you root for him to somehow overcome his ideology, and Thurman is smart enough to follow the dentist rather than demonize him, lifting The Revisionaries above voyeuristic predecessors like Jesus Camp, which have tended to gawk at their fundamentalist subjects rather than understand them.

That having been said: the answer is NO. The film’s first half follows the debate over teaching evolution. Creationism and intelligent design have both been roundly dismissed from science education, leaving creationists to sneak doubts about evolution into the curriculum rather than argue for outright inclusion of their substitute narrative. This portion of the film is more a fascinating exercise in political rhetoric than anything, as the initial language of “strengths and weaknesses” that sought to undermine evolution is thrown out—to the delight of Texas Freedom Network’s Kathy Miller and the sputtering dismay of McLeroy—only to be replaced with even vaguer and more porous terms.

The switcheroo happens courtesy the film’s real villain, Cynthia Dunbar, a sharp law professor at fundamentalist bootcamp Liberty University, who shrewdly picks the new language from the testimony of an anthropology professor, thus making it appear as if “the experts” had suggested it. Dunbar attended Pat Robertson’s university before teaching at Liberty, and Miller fingers her, not McLeroy, as the true crafter of the right’s long-term strategy. Endlessly dissembling, constantly conniving, Dunbar happily lives up to Miller’s description; whereas McLeroy’s amendments come off as conservative buffoonery, Dunbar cloaks her fundamentalism in the discourses of civics and history, until the moderates on the Board can’t critique her proposals even as they clearly suspect they’re being had. As the vote is still being taken, Dunbar, behind her smiling façade, is already drawing up plans for the next battle.

McLeroy, for all his repugnant ideology, is absent this longitudinal shrewdness, and it humanizes him. When he loses the “strengths and weaknesses” argument, the talkative man is rendered literally speechless, less out of anger than sorrow: he really thinks he’s let his constituents down. With no Dunbar-like mask to hide behind, his personal investment in the policy he’s impacting is laid bare.

It’s a telling moment that’s repeated when McLeroy checks the results of his next school board election and sees himself behind in the vote in every county, including his own. McLeroy shuts his eyes in what is clearly a brief prayer, and an unanswered one: McLeroy loses to a moderate conservative who ran against McLeroy on a campaign of “Can you believe this guy?” After a red-meat montage of McLeroy proposing amendments to eliminate references of hip-hop in favor of country music (the “can’t we teach both?” compromise goes nowhere fast), inserting language about the communist conspiracy of the 1950s, deleting sections on discrimination of women and minorities, shoehorning Phyllis Schafly and Newt Gingrich into a 1990s section, and enshrining Ronald Reagan as “restoring American optimism,” it’s hard to feel bad for McLeroy.

The Revisionaries does, though, and appropriately, in this viewer’s opinion. McLeroy clearly dislikes Kathy Miller, but Miller passionately believes in her version of education just as much as McLeroy does his. The jolly dentist’s real opposite is Dunbar, who is treating Texan children like pawns in a culture war, something to which McLeroy, whose profession of caring for children is impossible to doubt, would strenuously object if he ever even considered it.

Alas, after losing the election, McLeroy becomes something of a minor star on the tea party circuit, with each appearance sounding more politicized and melodramatic as the soft-spokenness that first made him appealing erodes. It’s tempting to view this acidic change as his true self finally burning through its affable exterior, but the film implicitly argues that this is instead McLeroy’s reaction to his own powerlessness, which he equates with being unable to help those around him. In the end, he still teaches Sunday School, and he still weighs with each sentence what he’s saying to the children in his classroom. Meanwhile, Cynthia Dunbar is long gone from the Board; having accomplished what she needed, she’s off to fight other fights. It’s too bad no camera will be on McLeroy to catch his quick prayer when he realizes that he and his students have been played.

*

Now a note to current and future scorers of documentaries in the Lone Star state: not every Texas film needs to be backed by anodyne acoustic guitar, and not every documentary needs to sound like a poor man’s NPR segment. While the music composition received some nice marks from the audience, it seemed to this viewer to undermine the consequential events of the film, especially in the treacly melodies at the end: The Revisionaries closes on a note of “Bob McElroy Goes To Austin in A Major” that makes all the preceding politicking feel like a wondrous adventure rather than the ideological corruption of the Texas educational system. By the by, the joke’s on all of you: under Rick Perry’s budget, Texas public schools are being defunded out of existence, which will soon render all of these debates irrelevant.

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