Hot Docs Review: The Revisionaries

By  · Published on May 3rd, 2012

by Lauren Flanagan

What would the state of American education be if Ned Flanders controlled what went into school textbooks? Folks in the Lone Star State came dangerously close to finding out during the 2009–2010 Texas State Board of Education hearings to determine the curriculum for millions of students.

Made up of locally elected officials (some with academic training, some without) the SBOE was chaired by affable yet arrogant dentist and “young Earth creationist” Don McLeroy, and had the power to decide what information would go into textbooks. The position is one of great significance because Texas’ size makes it the country’s biggest purchaser of textbooks. The standards set by the board influence textbook publishing across the country.

While it would seem that one’s religion would be irrelevant in such a setting, it took center stage when McLeroy and other members of the board fought to undermine the theory of evolution in the state’s science textbooks with the right wing side pushing for them to accentuate the “weaknesses” of such a theory. This fight is at the heart of The Revisionaries.

In this fascinating and at times infuriating movie, first time documentary filmmaker Scott Thurman follows the proceedings in which the 15 members of the SBOE rewrite the textbooks that will be used in all of Texas’ public school classrooms for the next decade. It’s fascinating to watch as the group debates, rejects and amends the current textbooks with what seems like little understanding of the theories they’re rejecting. When the initial language that sought to undermine evolution is thrown out (to the delight of Texas Freedom Network’s Kathy Miller and the shock of McLeroy), it’s almost immediately replaced with something even less helpful – thus demonstrating the failure of the process in so many ways.

McLeroy, for all his ignorant ideology (watch the movie before you judge me for that statement), is a bit of a sympathetic character. When the language is first thrown out it renders him almost totally speechless with sorrow. Despite his controversial beliefs, he truly believes that what he’s trying to accomplish is for the good of millions of children – even if it goes against centuries-old scientific fact.

Like Flanders, you’ve got to like (if not respect) someone who’s got such an obnoxiously kind heart. Thurman, for his part, is cautious not to demonize the jolly creationist -which would be very easy to do. (“Somebody’s got to stand up to experts,” is one of his most memorable and head-shakingly laughable lines). Another board member, Cynthia Dunbar, doesn’t fare as well. A highly intelligent woman, she sees the opportunity to advance her religious beliefs and uses the children of Texas like they’re pawns in some kind of ridiculous us vs. them battle. She votes against the separation of church and state in a vote that still has me shaking my head.

The saddest part of the entire movie is not about politics infiltrating education, but rather the fact that when McLeroy is up for re-election there’s only a 20% voter turnout. In a country where people are so obsessed with the notion of freedom and can vote in a democratic process, they almost completely ignore what is going on in schools and allow their children’s education be defined by ignorance. So many people are appalled about the idea of religion in the schools yet they do absolutely nothing about it. They allow people with virtually no experience and some very conservative religious agendas to control what millions of children will learn.

It’s important to note that this is not a movie against religion. Nor is it trying to advance a leftist agenda. McLeroy, Dunbar and other conservatives on the board see themselves as fighting against liberal bias in textbooks, while opponents see them as pushing their Biblically inspired viewpoints into public education. It’s told as fairly as a story like this could be.

Truly, It’s a character portrait of the people involved in shaping education policy, and a damn good one at that.

The Upside: An engaging and very relevant character study of the people involved in shaping the education of millions of youngsters.

The Downside: It’ll scare the hell out of you that such people are in positions of power.

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