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The Enlightenment, Texas Style

The great state of Texas is about to change our understanding of the Enlightenment for its high school students. The State Board of Education rejected the old understanding of the Enlightenment–the one where students were expected to learn how to “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” In its deep wisdom, the Board, in a 10-5 party-line vote, has just revised its social-studies curriculum.

The conservative majority has concocted a revision of the old curriculum that rewrites a fair amount of history, much of the time by subtly changing little phrases or substituting words like “leadership” for “role” when the text talks about a hallowed Republican such as Nixon, but occasionally by stepping in to effect a major overhaul. The Enlightenment, in particular, was subjected to such profound tinkering that it really ought to be renamed. I propose calling it, “The New and Improved, Texas-Style Enlightenment.”

In the new Texas version, the word “Enlightenment” is nowhere to be found. Instead students will learn to “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone.”

Huh? The very word “Enlightenment” can no longer be uttered? Thomas Jefferson, kaput? Apparently, according to the Texas Board. Jefferson never should have written that darn phrase “separation of church and state,” nor let anyone see his deist cards. And who could have guessed that the Texas Board, made up of regular Texans—lawyers, a dentist, a real estate guy, some teachers, etc.—would have ferreted out what Enlightenment scholars have missed all these years: Aquinas and Calvin are critical to understanding the Enlightenment, while Jefferson is not.

The perversion of knowledge into state propaganda resembles nothing so much as what the Communist bloc did to ideas in the mid-20th century. More fearful of ideas than guns, they simply banned any ideas they didn’t like. In wiping out Jefferson, in particular, the Texas board looks a lot like the communists who used to airbrush out of official state photos those who had been executed after the famous Czech show trials early in the 1950s.

This is a preliminary approval, subject to public comment. The final vote is supposed to take place in May.

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