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The Creedalists

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Like the poor, we seem always to have with us those who insist upon their own views. They are never less than certain. And, knowing, they feel entitled—obligated—to compel the rest of us to know what they know.

For decades now, the state of Texas has exercised enormous influence on the textbooks used in elementary and high schools throughout the nation. It has done so through the state Board of Education, which must approve all textbooks used in the state. The size of the Texas market (and that of California, which carries a similar weight) has made it an irresistibly powerful tail, wagging the editorial process that has traditionally produced the materials from which children learn (or don’t) in schools. If Texas wants it, it goes in, and everybody gets it; if Texas doesn’t want it, nobody gets it. That is the logic of the market and of the economics of printed books.

The scramble to get books approved in Texas has not necessarily brought forth publishers’ best efforts. Some 30 years ago, I recall, the board was considering dictionaries for use in high schools. There were two candidates, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and one whose name has happily escaped me. Both were found, upon examination, to contain the dreaded f-word. The board demanded that it be removed, perhaps fearing that if there should, by any chance, be a high school student somewhere in the state who had not before encountered that word, he or (I suppose more likely) she might suffer some sort of psychological deflowering upon seeing it there on the page, in seven-point type, between fuchsin, a kind of dye, and fucoid, a type of seaweed.

If Texas wants it, it goes in, and everybody gets it; if Texas doesn’t want it, nobody gets it.

The nameless publisher evidently calculated that he could have the page reset, filling the space freed up by the deletion, and deliver a new press run at a bearable cost. He agreed to the board’s demand. Merriam’s president refused. As it happened, the board then had a rule that two alternatives must be approved (so that schools would have a choice of dictionary) or none. (Readers may recognize the situation as a variation on the Prisoner’s Dilemma.) The one publisher’s pusillanimity availed him naught, while the other was able to stymie his competitor and walk away with something that looked rather like honor.

In those days the Texas board’s public hearings were often dominated by a pair of dedicated amateur critics, Mel and Norma Gabler. Their reviews of textbooks were a good deal more probing and detailed than the board’s and, frankly, than many publishers’ own staffs’. The Gablers were mainly interested in ferreting out instances of what they considered anti-American or anti-Christian or immoral ideas, but in the course of their reviews they discovered hundreds upon hundreds of factual errors, especially in American history textbooks. A few publishers admitted privately that they really had no mechanism for fact-checking and relied upon their authors for factual accuracy. (There is nothing very new after all in the Wikipedia model.) Their solution, at least until the furor died down, was to hire editorial-services firms to comb through manuscripts before they were committed to type.

Here’s the thing about facts: Once ascertained and fixed in mind, they can be filed away and never reexamined. They are comfortably established as the indivisible, incontrovertible atoms of all future discourse, little logical Legos.

This sort of thing ought to be a snap by now. But, breathless prophets of an all-digital world notwithstanding, the textbook is still very much with us and will be at least for a while to come. And Texas still figures large in deciding what goes into it. The current board, however, takes a much more active approach: It has been making quite specific demands about what matters are or are not to be covered. Thus, as the newspapers and blogs have been telling us just lately, Thomas Jefferson is out, Phyllis Schlafly is in. It’s not enough now to get the facts right; it’s about getting the right facts.

But what are the right facts? More fundamentally, what are to count as facts?

It is a commonplace among persons of conservative views that the radicals of the 1960s have managed to infiltrate and take over much of the nation’s collegiate faculty, at least in the humanities. From their position of academic authority these now-aging pinks and reds have been inculcating their students with a variety of leftist and even revolutionary opinions. If this is true—and it doesn’t take very many Ward Churchills to make it seem so—then what more natural reaction could there be than to try to inoculate those students before they arrive on campus?

“Academia is skewed too far to the left,” says one member of the board. That, for him and for his fellows, is a fact, as certain as sunrise and as immune to disproof as the Pythagorean theorem. “America is a racist imperialist power,” says (let us imagine) a William Ayers, and that, for him and his fellows, is equally a fact.

They are never less than certain. And, knowing, they feel entitled—obligated—to compel the rest of us to know what they know. They become, in a word, crusaders.

Of course, they are not facts, either one of those statements. They are judgments, in support or denial of which actual facts might be adduced. But they feel like facts to their proponents. Here’s the thing about facts: Once ascertained and fixed in mind, they can be filed away (or kept ready for quick reference, like Post-it notes stuck up on some mental wall) and never reexamined. They are comfortably established as the indivisible, incontrovertible atoms of all future discourse, little logical Legos. Who would be so foolish as to label his pet belief an opinion when, with a little persistence, he can get it into the fray armored as a fact?

That done, to arrive at the truth of some matter one simply marshals all the relevant facts and assembles them into what must be an unarguable, if foregone, conclusion. As for those people on the other side, those cheats who perversely omit certain facts, they produce instead mere propaganda, damn their puny souls to eternal perdition!

Does the Texas board member pause to reflect that those radicals of the ’60s were schooled on the textbooks of the Eisenhower years? Perhaps not. That they then went off to college, discovered that a few facts had been omitted from their schooling, and promptly made a fetish of them? Does he stop for just a moment to wonder if what he is doing now is likely to have the desired effect?

Like the poor, we seem always to have with us those who insist upon their own views. They are unable to say “I believe…” or “As I see it…”. They know. They know what’s what and who’s who, right from wrong and left from right. They are never less than certain. And, knowing, they feel entitled—obligated—to compel the rest of us to know what they know. They become, in a word, crusaders. This is a quirk of character that is not unique to the adherents of any one or one sort of creed but is an inescapable disease to which all creedalists are susceptible. Hard cheese on the rest of us to have to watch these driven ones and their politicians seesaw eternally past sensible answers to life’s little questions.

Robert McHenry is the former editor of Encyclopedia Britannica.

FURTHER READING: McHenry discussed the little-known origins of Social Security in “A Man and His Plan,” laments “The Death of the Cool,” and explains “Marx, Hubbard, and the Totalitarian Impulse.” The American Enterprise Institute just published an collection of essays entitled The Politically Correct University. And AEI’s Frederick Hess discusses the “Disappointing First Leg in Education’s Big Race.”

Image by /Bergman Group.

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