Controversy erupted in 2009 when the Texas State Board of Education debated changes to the state's textbooks that centered on the teaching of evolution.
The Revisionaries documents the Board of Education's contentious battle, focusing in large part on Don McLeroy — a young-earth creationist and, at the time, chairman of the Texas Board of Education. The film is being screend at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with the documentary's executive Producer Vijay Dewan, and with the man at the heart of the debate and the film, Don McLeroy.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Controversy erupted in 2009 when the Texas State Board of Education debated changes to the state's textbooks, and once again, controversy erupted over the teaching of evolution. Conservatives held a slim majority on the board and succeeded in entering language that left many scientists and science teachers across the state frustrated. Here's one teacher testifying before the board.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE REVISIONARIES")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Each step of the way, evolution deniers and opponents on the board have thumbed their nose at science and made clear that their own personal ideological beliefs are more important than giving Texas kids the education they need to succeed in college and in jobs of the 21st century.
CONAN: Of course others felt differently. Today, we'll begin a two-part series on films shown at the American Film Institute's Silver Docs Festival and begin with "The Revisionaries," a new film on the Texas textbook battle from director Scott Thurman. Texas teachers, we want to hear from you. How do you teach evolution in your classroom? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Vijay Dewan is executive producer of "The Revisionaries" and joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
VIJAY DEWAN: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And why is this a big deal outside of Texas?
DEWAN: Well, Texas has a very large influence on the rest of the nation. Texas is one of the largest states that decides its curriculum on a statewide level and purchases textbooks on a statewide level. So publishers actually publish their books to the Texas mandates. And Texas buys 110 percent of the enrollment right out of the chute so textbook manufacturers can recoup their investment right off the bat and end up selling those books in other markets.
CONAN: And how does that the process work? The school board doesn't write the textbooks.
DEWAN: No. The board actually has experts that first write a draft of the standards, and the elected state Board of Education then revises those standards. And the publishers then need to write textbooks that meet the standards that were - are passed by the Board of Education.
CONAN: And much of your documentary is debates in the Texas School Board over these exact standards. It's an open and lively conversation.
DEWAN: Indeed, yeah. It's a very lively conversation.
CONAN: In Texas, members of the state Board of Education are elected from large districts. The film focuses on a few them, including Don McLeroy, who served as chairman. He's also a dentist. And in the film, we meet him in his office giving a patient a filling.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE REVISIONARIES")
DON MCLEROY: Hey, Michael, you ever thought much about evolution? Yeah, I do. We all share a common ancestry with that tree out front. You ever thought much about it?
MICHAEL: You know, not really.
MCLEROY: Yeah. Most people hadn't thought much about it.
CONAN: Don McLeroy joins us from his office in Bryan, Texas, via smartphone. And thanks very much for being with us today.
MCLEROY: Well, thank you very much.
CONAN: From your...
MCLEROY: Pleasure to be here.
CONAN: Thank you. From your perspective, what was this debate all about?
MCLEROY: Oh, the debate from my perspective is all about restoring scientific integrity to the teaching of science. And so in the evolution debate, there were two standards that were added in the section on evolution, and the two standards just challenged some of evolution's most glaring weaknesses in explaining the fossil record and the complexity of the cell.
CONAN: And so it leaves open, scientists say, through the backdoor consideration of creationism and smart design - intelligent design, excuse me.
MCLEROY: You know, intelligent design. Yeah. You know, I totally disagree with that characterization of opening the backdoor. What we're doing is just putting in strong science standards. The science magazine, you know, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported after we passed the standards that new science standards for Texas schools strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution. And really, they're right because what they do is, when they highlight these weaknesses, now the textbooks have to explain these weaknesses.
And there was one standard added about the fossil record to explain the sudden appearance in stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record. There was another one that had the students analyze (unintelligible) scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell. And if you - Darwin, in his book "Origin of Species" said that the fossil record was the greatest difficulty with his theory, and it's still a great difficulty for his theory. It doesn't support it. And then, he didn't even realize that the cell needed an explanation. I mean, what we've learned in just phenomenal since the days of Darwin. I mean, he goes into no enough details to try to explain things about the complexity of the cell. The good news is our Texas students are now going to evaluate for themselves. They can test for themselves to see how strong the evidence is.
CONAN: A big blow to the teaching of evolution. You say - at one point, you're quoted in the film when you were chairman as saying the power that you held - given the publishing facts that we heard just a moment ago, the power that you had was mindboggling.
MCLEROY: Well, you know, that was a comment I made at - a long interview with this lady that come down from Washington, actually, just to interview me after about two or three hours, and I'd gotten real comfortable. You know, I'm not bragging about the fact we had all this power, but in a way, it's kind of true if you look at it. You're talking to me here today.
CONAN: Yeah, that's true. There you go. And let me get Vijay Dewan back into the conversation. Of course, you talk to people other than Don McLeroy, but, in a way, he's the star of your film.
DEWAN: Indeed, he's the - he's, in a lot of ways, both - depending on your viewpoint - the protagonist and the antagonist of this film. He was the chairman of the board during the science hearings and was really a leader during that process. So we follow him during the hearings, but we also follow him into his office and to Sunday school, and we also follow him as he runs for re-election.
CONAN: And there's a poignant scene. There is the re-election campaign, as you mentioned, and you're with Don, filming him in his car when he hears an ad on the radio broadcast by a fellow Republican.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE REVISIONARIES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's a deep kind of problem. Don McLeroy, our representative on the Texas State Board of Education, believes the Earth less than 10,000 years old, that humans walked with dinosaurs and that supernatural explanations are valid science. Come on, Texans. On March 2nd, let's send this guy home. Keep the State Board of Educations smart. Vote against Don McLeroy in the Republican primary. Paid for the Citizens for a Smart State Board of Education.
CONAN: And, Don McLeroy, we all know, as the old expression goes, politics ain't beanbag, but did you think it was fair for you to be mocked for your religious beliefs as a Young Earth creationist?
MCLEROY: Well, of course not. I don't think it's very nice. Actually, let me clarify. First of all, it wasn't - my opponent did not ran that ad. That was a group of other people that raised the money to, you know, that produced that ad. It had nothing to do with my Republican opponent. So I would say it was just other people that got involved.
Frankly, I think it's very serious when people make fun of people's religious convictions. Yes, I am a Young Earth creationist. I know there's difficulties being a Young Earth creationist. The thing is I would be more worried about it if nobody else had a problem with their view. And that's what I pointed out, is the atheists has to have something come from nothing. Then you have the evolutionists. They have to have unguided natural processes to explain the complexity that we find in life and in the cell. Eventually, they have to come up with the origin of human consciousness. They got to - it's - I would say they have much greater problems than I do.
And, of course, I recognize, I have problems. But even so, I did not and I had not and we do not force the Young Earth creationist view on anybody. All we did - we didn't force creationism. We didn't force anything about age of the Earth. All we did was restore scientific integrity, to have the students evaluate some of the weaknesses that we find in evolution. They got some weaknesses. I'm amazed that, you know, a religious conservative like myself is free to accept or reject evolution.
Look at Francis Collins, Dr. Collins. Everybody fairly well know, you know, he's probably such a well-known head of the Human Genome Project. He is a Christian, and he looked at the evidence and thinks that God used evolution to create. I look at the evidence and I say he didn't. And so Christians are free. Religious conservatives are free to either look, to accept or reject. The really - person that's put themselves in the box is the strong secular-minded individual because they're only free to accept evolution. They're not free to reject, and that's why I think they'd become the dogmatists in this entire debate. I see the dogmatism coming from the evolution side.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Ann's with us from Middletown in Ohio.
ANN: My questions is, what is to prevent a school in Ohio from saying no? We don't want the same textbook as Texas.
CONAN: Vijay Dewan, as I think you explained in the movie, the other big state that also does its curriculum this way is California. So there's certainly going to be an alternative.
DEWAN: There is, yes, but I also think that there's nothing to stop you from telling your board of education and your legislators that, you know, the type of textbooks that you want and the type of textbooks you don't want to see in your students - the students in your state, in your kids' classrooms.
CONAN: And one of the things that I think all sides on this debate could agree on is that this is incredibly important. This is the future we're talking about.
DEWAN: Yes, definitely.
CONAN: Let's see - thank you very much for the call, Ann.
ANN: Our education...
CONAN: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off. Go ahead.
ANN: Well, my question is regarding our standing in the world regarding our education. We're not just competing against other students in Ohio or in Texas or in the United States. We're competing against other countries who are learning this, you know, so...
MCLEROY: My response would be, why not go ahead and have the students analyze and evaluate the scientific explanations for the complexity of the cell? Take this adopted new science books in - last July, a year ago. And in seven pages of text to explain the complexity of the cell, only two examples were listed in the seventh page of the text by a real famous revolutionist in his high school textbook. One of them was one cell swallows another cell and acquires the photosynthetic ability of that cell. I mean, to find a radio in a car, does that explain their complexity? To me, the textbooks had been written to these new standards. You can read those. You can - and they're very weak.
CONAN: I think we're all...
MCLEROY: Make students get to decide for themselves.
CONAN: I think we're all ready to accept the radios as signs of intelligent design. In any case...
CONAN: ...we're talking with Don McLeroy, the subject of a new film called, "The Revisionists," one of the subjects. Its executive producer is also with us, Vijay Dewan. It's showing this week at the Silverdocs Festival at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs - Silver Theater in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we go next to Hanna(ph). Hanna with us from East Lansing.
HANNA: Yes. I cannot express how frustrating it is to be an educator from Texas. I started out thinking I want to be a teacher, and I'd want to teach history, geography, things like that in the state of Texas. And as I progress through the teacher program at Texas Tech, I realized that I wouldn't have a say in what I got to teach my students. Even I'm not teaching science or evolution, what I got to teach is completely mandated by the state, and I didn't agree with it. And it's very frustrating to have people who are not educators telling me or telling any educator, what I can or what we can or cannot teach those children. And if we don't agree with it, there's nothing we can do about it. Their children may not pass the state exam.
CONAN: Vijay Dewan, there are plenty of people on that, on Hanna's side of the argument, who are also in the movie.
DEWAN: Yes, there are. Actually, the person running against Don, Thomas Ratliff really wanted to give a lot of the power back to the teachers, and one of his platforms is really to take the politics out of public education and really - and let the experts in the field and the teachers really dictate what's in the curriculum.
CONAN: Mr. Ratliff says at one point in the movie, it's - he opposes the idea that anybody is considered an expert if two members of the school board say he or she is. And, Don McLeroy, it's you who say, we need to stand up to the experts.
MCLEROY: Well, I did say that. You know, Americans didn't taught to think for themselves, and I have studied, for instance, the subject of evolution. I've studied for 25 years, and my bookshelves are loaded with books. I read Stephen Jay Gould and Dawkins, and I have all their books, and I've read and thought seriously about it. But I think the caller has a really good point. Why in the world should somebody at a state level to decide? Right now, the policy is state-by-the-state legislators. It's not by Mr. Ratliff or anybody on the state board education decides that the teachers have to teach what's in the standards. This is all really fairly recent.
When - my wife grew up in Houston. I grew up in Dallas. We both, basically, have the same education. There were no state standards, but there's a thing that the - all educator - if you want to debate this, go to your education establishment, the leaders in the education world because they're the ones that have come up with this standards-based reform to try to help educate our students. And that this is a result of standards-based reform, the standards are the thing that frustrates so many teachers. And I agree with them. I think - I don't mind having it go back to the local control. I thought it was disingenuous in the campaign that Mr. Ratliff would bring this up when he has no say-so over it.
CONAN: All right. Hanna, thanks very much for the call.
HANNA: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ralph, and Ralph's with us from San Antonio.
CONAN: Hi, there.
RALPH: Hi. I was a high student in 1991, and I remember my freshman biology book had a huge section concerning evolution in the end, and we never read over it. I remember asking my biology teacher...
RALPH: ...one day, said, well, how come, you know, this is like almost the half the book. How come you're not talking about it? And she said, I don't even want to go near that stuff. So, I'm not sure if at the time was because she didn't believe in it, or if she didn't want to get involve in social ramifications. So that's just the comment I wanted to make.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And, Don McLeroy, we just have a few seconds left. But at end the of the film, as you mentioned, you lost that election. There's another one coming up this year. Are you running again for the Texas School Board?
MCLEROY: Oh, I was a victim of redistricting. They put me in with one of my best friends, so I didn't have the opportunity to run; supported my good friend that was - who's now the chairman of the board, Barbara Cargill.
MCLEROY: So, yes, I would have run, but I was the target at their legislature. They couldn't confirm me as a chairman a few years ago, and then they redistricted me with one of my best friends.
CONAN: Well, Don McLeroy, thanks very much for your time and good luck with your dental practice there.
MCLEROY: Well, thank you.
MCLEROY: Sure. I'll see you Friday.
CONAN: OK, 10 o'clock. Don McLeroy, dentist and former head of the Texas Board of Education. He's featured in "The Revisionaries." Our thanks to its executive producer, Vijay Dewan, who joined us from our bureau in New York. Good luck with the film.
DEWAN: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
CONAN: Tomorrow, the next in our series of documentary films from Silverdocs, "Call Me Kuchu." Plus, the renewed debate over supermax prisons as a number of inmates file suits. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.