Among the big winners at the Tribeca Film festival this year was the compelling documentary “The Revisionaries,” which chronicles the hearings in Austin, Texas, by the Board of Education and the debate over the science and social studies curriculum in school textbooks. The film’s director, Scott Thurman, received special Jury Mention at the Awards by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.
The film demonstrates the powerful impact that civic politics can have in determining education policy at the national level in today’s classrooms and how the economics of the textbook publishing industry has strengthened the influence of the Texas Board of Education in affecting education policy on a national level. A series of Texas school board hearings was held to revise the standard set to rewrite school textbooks nationwide.
The film’s creator and director, Scott Thurman discovered his story while working on his graduate film thesis project at University of North Texas. Thurman, raised in a strict Protestant environment, wanted to explore the ways in which science was taught in the classroom. As part of his research, Thurman was invited to attend the hearings of the Texas Board of Education in which elected community leaders voted on the standards that would dictate textbook revisions in schools throughout the country. The commerce of the publishing industry gave Texas policy makers and publishing executives an unprecedented amount of access to and influence upon the way language was worded in textbooks; Thurman's documentation had helped to make Texas ground zero for a national debate on the way teachers would teach every subject in classrooms throughout the country. What began as a glimpse at how science was taught in the classroom became a magnifying lens into a national debate on the separation of church and state in schools, the struggle to preserve democracy in education and raised valuable questions of who decides how teachers teach: a controversy that would ultimately echo throughout the country.
Thurman witnessed the struggle between the religious right and the democratic liberal board members for power over of how lessons were worded in science and social studies textbooks. As he delved deeper into the controversy he found a larger story: Right-wing and religious members of the school boards struggle to control the debate on how science and social studies was taught in the school, against a liberal left minority. Thurman gained insight into the lives and personalities of his main characters while witnessing these hearings: Don McLeroy, former chairman of the School Board of Education and Sunday School teacher, and Cynthia Dunbar an attorney and professor of Law at Liberty University in Lynchburg Virginia, who supported debate on the right against their opposition Kathy Miller, a mother and passionate advocate of democracy in schools, and Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor from Southern Methodist University with a liberal position.
Kathy Miller, founder of the Texas Freedom Network, and a passionate advocate of democracy in schools, led the fight to preserve the separation of church and state in schools. She and Wetherington, argued that McLeroy and his right-wing supporters were undermining the very fabric of the constitution by trying to dilute the textbooks in every subject with language infused with religious doctrines. Their effort to exclude any language in school textbooks that challenges the irrefutable nature of theories of creation violate the very foundations of American civil liberties and the constitutional separation of church and state in schools. Miller’s passionate crusade to preserve the liberal values and to ensure that today’s classrooms are safe from the intrusion of politics and religion led her to found the Texas Freedom Network. The network provides advocacy and statewide trainings in schools to combat the conservative influence of her opponents and offset what she feels amounts to censorship in today’s classrooms.
As it explores the politics of education policy through the lens of textbook production, The Revisionaries provides a compelling window into the complex politics of education policy today. In series of hearings capturing the debate of the Texas Board of Education between members left and right, the audience gets a front row seat into the debates that became a catalyst for a national dialogue on education politics. The film raises important questions. Who decides what our children are learning in school? Who decides what to teach today’s students? Should politics, parents, teachers, publishers or the students themselves determine content of what our teachers teach in today’s classrooms.
Scott Thurman's dedication his gift for storytelling gave him the tools to craft character, drama and humor and convey the complex dynamics of education policy with entertainment and authenticity. With impressive even handedness and integrity, Thurman gives the audience a window into the shocking amount of influence Don McLeroy and his partners have had on influencing the board members to resist the more democratic and liberal opinions of fellow board members in their attempts to diminish the Christian right’s control over the debate.
The film also illustrates the politics of textbook production and the incredible role that politics has in shaping national education policy. The film shows how 15 people influence what is taught to the next generation of American children and is an inspiring look at the important role every individual citizen can play in impacting education policy. #