With the debate in the US about changing curriculums and AP test subjects, it seems appropriate to investigate a bit further into the debate and its background. “The Revisionaries” is a 2012 documentary meant to provide a look at who makes the decision that affect the American curriculum and on what grounds they are made. While the film does provide a good and interesting look at the logic – or illogic – of curriculum decisions, it also makes some interesting choices of its own, raising the age-old question of what a documentary is meant to do.
“The Revisionaries” follows Don McLeroy, the former head of the Texas state Board of Education, as he head a curriculum revision first for the Texas science curriculum, and then for the Texas social studies curriculum. In the case of science, the debate focuses on evolution and how to teach evolution in schools, while the social studies curriculum debate focuses on a shift towards conservatism and the exclusion of minorities.
The film offers a good look at the thought process behind some of the changes made by the Texas SBOE, and an excellent look at the politics of it. Its interviews with the Board members make it clear that each of them do feel they have Texas’ best interests at heart. The interviews with lobbyists and outside parties, too, demonstrate that, for everyone involved, this is a moral fight where they are the good and righteous protagonists facing a foe that seeks nothing less than the destruction of Texas’ children. Even while the film shows some of the more outlandish beliefs of its subjects – McLeroy, for instance, is a Young Earth Creationist – it still manages to humanise them and not demonise them and their desires.
There is one exception to this. The Texas SBOE opens its sessions with a prayer. Each time this prayer is shown, it’s juxtaposed with ridiculous decisions made by the board and with bouncy, mocking music, implying that there is something inherently wrong with leading off a session with a prayer. While it’s true that religion does play a large role in some of the representatives’ decisions – and certainly in McLeroy’s – and while it’s true that there must be a separation between church and state, it still seems rather disingenuous to take the idea of religion and insist that any consideration towards it be mocked. The act of saying a prayer doesn’t lie at the heart of why Texas has a bizarre curriculum, as the revisions to the social studies curriculum show, nor should religion itself be demonised as the cause of the changes. At the heart of it lies fundamentally different ways of viewing the world and what ought to be valued, which, to a certain extent, is entirely separate from religion.
It’s this choice to both humanise the religious members of the SBOE and make light of their religion that really poses the most interesting questions of the documentary. The film is very blatant in its position that what McLeroy is doing is wrong and that it feels that the SBOE in general is making very bad decisions. With this light in mind, its humanisation of the board members feels ironic and almost as if it’s intended to evoke pity or to mock them. Indeed, by the end, the audience is almost certainly meant to pity McLeroy, who has gone through a state Senate hearing and a failed re-election campaign to go back to being no one of importance. The documentary’s goal is pretty clearly to evoke the feeling that the Texas SBOE must be stopped, and that religious influences must be taken out of the classroom. It undoubtedly succeeds in that with its target audience – those who already agree with these ideas – but in its decisions to mock faith and those who have it, it alienates those who really ought to be persuaded by the message – those who elected people like McLeroy in the first place. The film dismisses the idea that they can be reached, instead preferring to mock them to appease its target audience.
On the whole, though, “The Revisionaries” is a well-made documentary. While some of its choices are questionable, its range of interviewees and perspectives does offer a somewhat balanced picture of the Texas SBOE and why it reaches the conclusions that it does. More importantly, it establishes why any of this matters through interviews with textbook publishers and others who point out exactly why Texas is so important. It’s well-made and argues its case well, albeit at the expense of those it purports to humanise.Continue Reading Issue #24
April 21, 2012
1 hr. 32 min.
Rick Agosto, Lawrence Allen Jr., David Anderson