Just the facts

The TEXAN has published more than eight articles on the content of school textbooks in the past few years. For our state, the issue is of special importance because publishers count on Texas to buy 10 percent of the nation’s textbooks and to set the standard for many smaller states. The arguments are familiar in our culture’s war of worldviews; liberal vs. conservative, theist vs. atheist, objective vs. subjective morality, and so on. We’re very interested in who wins but maybe we don’t ask ourselves what winning would look like.

One conservative Texan was characterized, not quoted, in the New York Times as wanting to ensure that “they [textbooks] are stripped of ideology and offer a straightforward, objective statement of facts.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? I don’t believe it’s possible, or even desirable to strip foundational subjects of their ideological baggage. Facts have meaning, after all. Let’s look at how integral ideology is to a few basic subjects.

Literature–This one is pretty easy to see. Prose and poetry, at least the best sort, has a viewpoint. It expresses a view of truth. Actually, it has a theology that can be discerned by a thoughtful reader. We want our kids to be thoughtful readers, don’t we? Whoever chooses Charles Dickens over Kurt Vonnegut has made a choice, maybe based on time limitations or age-appropriateness but a choice that nonetheless has a theology to it. Another school that chooses Maya Angelou over Rudyard Kipling has made a decision ripe with ideology. In fact it is hard to imagine a truly neutral reading of a good story or poem.

Well-told stories put you in another place and let you experience something you might not be able to experience in your lifetime. You begin to understand why characters did a certain thing and what consequences the author projects from those actions. Who’d want a story that did not do these things? And yet, doing so supposes good people and bad people (at least in the actions narrated) and positive or negative consequences to earlier events. The author who does this has a view of how things and people work. He has an opinion about which of his characters are most or least admirable. Likewise a good poem makes you understand something or feel something that words and their arrangement can evoke. I’d not want my children taught by a professor whose viewpoints have nothing to with his choice of reading assignments. But I would want to agree at significant points with his viewpoint. Neither of us should be disinterested.

History–Maybe some people think history is easier to teach objectively. It is, however, anything but an ideology-free zone. Consider the perspective of history, how the story is told. A generation of college students has been taught that the “great men” view of history is a flawed description of “dead white men.” Instead, perhaps we should tell the story of 1776 through the eyes of General Washington’s stable boy. Rather than focus on the positive outcomes of our westward expansion across the U.S. we might think about the people who did not want us to cover the continent or maybe a woman in a wagon train who was not allowed to vote in the family decision (or most recent election). However you view this philosophy of history, it is a philosophy and not dispassionate.

How should we understand our own nation as we read a version of American history? For every action of the majority there was a minority who experienced things differently. A history book or class that focuses on one more than the other will seek to affect the viewpoint of each student. The events we emphasize, facts we choose, people we honor, and correlations we draw in the study of history are the fruit of our opinions. For any side of these interpretations to portray its perspective as “simply the facts” is not credible. It isn’t simple and it shouldn’t be.

History, like other disciplines, also influences how we view the principles of those sister subjects. Does it affect our view of the Scopes trial in Tennessee to know that John Scopes agreed to violate the law against teaching evolution at the urging of publicity-hungry town fathers? You may learn about Scopes in biology class, but you might not hear why he did what he did. Does it matter if a history teacher includes that story or not? In history class you may learn the context of “David Copperfield” or of the real events that inspired “The Last of the Mohicans.” Knowing these contexts makes a difference in how you read the fiction.

Math–Even the steely and cold objectivity of numbers is not so divorced from meaning. In fact, if a person is not careful in his study of mathematics he may get the idea that there is some objectivity or linear direction in the way the universe works. That idea has baggage Math tries to describe symbolically the span of things, the relationship between these and those, even what might happen next. Isaac Newton, a pious man and the inventor of calculus, saw his invention as a revelation of God whereby we might have the key even to predict the future. In fact, Newton’s faith led him to assume that there is an orderly and somewhat predictable relationship between heavenly bodies like the earth and moon and between earthly bodies such as an apple that falls to the earth. If you learn that in history, I’ll be surprised, but if so, someone made a choice. Such an understanding imbues the numbers with life and possibilities you might not see if equations are merely bland tools rather than discoveries.

On we could go; and you’ll notice I restrained myself from mentioning biology at length (you’re welcome). I think we could see this strain of theology in everything a person does, particularly those things that require abstract thought. Meaning is everywhere; that’s how I read Romans 1:19-20.

So, teaching in no context is objective. I’d add that it should not be. And yet we’re not so happy with the confused product of an American institution that has become so focused on diversity that it neuters everything from vocabulary to the rules of dodge ball. Efforts to avoid offending that any imaginable one person truncate the right of the majority to more broadly influence our communities. Gripe about it all you want but that’s the way the wind blows for now. What should we do?

First, I’d insist that efforts to exalt biblical truth in every discipline are worthwhile. Truth is truth after all. A biblical worldview undergirds invention, enterprise, imagination, and philanthropy. We are not doing anything hostile by pointing out that there are two sides to the culture war, and by vigorously engaging the issues. We don’t bless anyone by throwing up our hands and quitting.

That said, there is no shortcut solution to what is ultimately a heart-by-heart problem. Winning a textbook fight will not change everything; it might change nothing. We cannot pick and choose a sanitized bit of what our community’s servants have to offer. If our schools us a fair history text, someone will supplement it with one-world nonsense.

There is then, no way around knowing your kids’ teachers, knowing the subject material they study, and guiding them through it. We don’t send our kids to others for tutelage so we can wash our hands of their education, do we?

Neutrality toward all worldviews in public and private schools sounds good at first. It is contrary to education, though. That’s why parents lead, because the lessons our children learn sprout from a view of truth. If the only way public education is palatable to biblical Christians is if teachers teach only random facts with no discernable context, then we must pull our kids out. There is no easy way that’s also morally acceptable, one that involves no close participation or sacrifice on our part as parents.

The radicals who insist that materialistic Darwinism and substantial human causation of climate change are “settled science” have an agenda based on what looks like the plain truth to them. Those same people who think it necessary to point out every flaw of America’s founders lest students believe them noble do not treat every historical figure that same way. That’s because they also have an agenda on this subject to which they are committed. We should oppose such anti-intellectual viewpoints in the educational system we fund and own. Let’s be honest though, a system based on biblical worldview, as ours should be, is also taking sides. There is no way to avoid taking sides and still produce nominally educated citizens.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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