Judge Clark Douglas plans to include himself in next year's history textbooks.
What happens in Texas affects the nation as a whole.
They say that history is written by the winners. That notion takes on sinister new shades in the documentary The Revisionaries, which suggests that the content of school textbooks can be altered dramatically by elected officials with no substantial knowledge of the subjects they're dealing with. The film spotlights the recent political battles in the state of Texas, as debates were held over whether or not to make some significant changes to science and history textbooks. In the former category, the debate was largely focused on the ever-controversial subject of evolution. In the latter category, the changes were as diverse as they were bizarre: proposals included replacing the phrase "hip-hop" with "country music," including the middle name "Hussein" every time Barack Obama was referenced and removing Thomas Jefferson from certain portions of the text.
The man at the center of these controversial debates is state board of education member Don McLeroy, a self-proclaimed Young Earth Creationist whose primary mission in life is to raise skepticism about the theory of evolution. McLeroy comes across like a real-life Ned Flanders: an irrepressibly nice guy who is eager to share his religious views with everyone he encounters. In one scene, McLeroy asks a group of kids whether there were any dinosaurs on Noah's ark. "No!" the kids cry. "Sure there were! We don't know!" McLeroy protests. He then takes the kids outside and makes an attempt to physically demonstrate that there was plenty of room for all of the world's creatures on Noah's ark. "There were three decks: the top deck was for the people, the middle deck was for the animals and the bottom deck was for all the poop!" he declares enthusiastically.
McLeroy works full-time as a dentist, and he cheerfully offers his views on evolution to just about every one of his patients. "Have you ever thought about evolution?" he asks as digs around in the back of a patient's mouth. "You know, man, not really," says the patient. McLeroy nods. "Yeah, they say we share a common ancestor with monkeys, did you know that? I'm a skeptic myself." McLeroy might have come across as obnoxious if he didn't seem so perfectly sincere about everything. When he claims that he's fighting to change the textbooks because he cares deeply about what children are being taught, you absolutely believe him. However, the fact that a man like McLeroy actually has the power to change those textbooks is more than a little frightening.
As I listened to the debates between the assorted figures the film spotlights (Cynthia Dunbar of Liberty University is the religious right's most powerful figure in the debate, while Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network leads the charge of the secular left), I was struck by how few intelligent, coherent arguments were made on either side. Sure, McLeroy's larger-than-life personality and limited intelligence might make him seem a bit dumber than everyone else, but those seeking to preserve the integrity of the textbooks don't seem particularly well-equipped to do so (the exception: anthropology professor Ron Wetherington, whose well-articulated points are undercut by the fact that he comes across like a conservative's stereotypical notion of a liberal elitist).
The most frightening information the film offers isn't that people want to alter the facts of history and science to suit their own agenda (we've known that for a long time), but that it's seemingly so easy for those people to do so. One doesn't have to have much education to actually be a member of the state board of education. Still, I couldn't help but feel for Don McLeroy. We watch as he listens to one nasty radio ad after another mocking his intelligence. He tries to pretend that he has a thick skin and makes fun of the ads, but it's clear that the commercials hurt his feelings. Yes, he was leading the charge to make some rather foolish textbook changes, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. People like McLeroy aren't really the problem; it's the fact that people like McLeroy are permitted to make decisions they simply aren't qualified to make.
The Revisionaries has received a solid standard-def transfer that presents the assorted footage it gathers with relative clarity. It's not a particularly sharp-looking doc, but it gets the job done. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is sufficient, though there were times when the original score felt like it was pushing too hard in one direction or another. The only supplement included is a theatrical trailer.
The Revisionaries is a worthwhile look at an important aspect of American education standards. What it has to say is worth hearing, but I value it most for its memorable portrait of the sweet, friendly, dangerous Don McLeroy. He's not a great board of education member, but he's a terrific character.
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