Erasing Thomas Jefferson

I don’t know how often I’ll be blogging about current events, but this news just bugs the hell out of me. According to the NY Times, the Texas Board of Education, which has a disproportionate influence on which textbooks are used across the US, has just approved 160 amendments to elementary and high school textbooks on history and economics — all favoring the conservative view. Some of the revisions seem fair enough; legitimate conservative contributions to history must be acknowledged, as must real liberal failings. But many changes are just chillingly Orwellian — this one, for me, the most disturbing of all:

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 the 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.

The leader of the Texas Board’s conservative faction, Don McLeroy — who admits “I’m a dentist, not a historian” — is also on record as being a young-earth creationist and a Christian fundamentalist. Again, from the Times:

For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. “There are two basic facts about man,” he said. “He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this is a huge thing.”

All of this inevitably calls to my mind the erasure of memory described in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — in which he recounts how, in Communist Czechoslovakia, government officials who were later declared enemies of the State were literally airbrushed out of the photos in the history books. In an interview, Kundera says “forgetting is… the great problem of politics” and warns against the method of “organized forgetting” used to strip a country of its national consciousness: “A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self.”

I don’t know how we can resist this, but somehow we must. Playing politics with memory and history is a dangerous business.


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