Debating Mediocrity and Expertise

Last week’s Texas State Board of Education meeting included an interesting discussion about who should be helping guide the revision of curriculum standards. The conversation was a perfect example of how politics and mediocrity have taken precedence over scholarship and expertise in deciding what students will learn in Texas public school classrooms.

Board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, said Friday that members of the social studies curriculum writing teams had suggested that “experts” appointed by the board to help guide the curriculum revision should have qualifications that, well, truly qualify them as experts.

We know that sounds awfully radical. But as it stands, two of the so-called “experts” on a six-member panel for the the social studies revision — WallBuilders head David Barton and the Rev. Peter Marshall of Peter Marshall Ministries — are absurdly unqualified. Neither even has an advanced degree in the social sciences. In fact, Barton’s bachelor’s degree is in religious studies. Neither can point to any peer-reviewed research they have conducted in the social sciences. Barton and Marshall might be experts in something, but it’s not the social sciences. But the two got their appointments to the “expert” panel because they share the same political worldviews as far-right members of the State Board of Education.

Responding to Ms. Knight’s concerns, those far-right board members set a pretty low standard for what should qualify someone as an “expert.”

Don McLeroy, R-College Station:

“We have a criteria [sic] for qualifications of ‘experts’ – the judgment of elected officials. I disagree that we need other criteria for experts. A PhD doesn’t necessarily mean that much. I’d rather go with the judgment of fellow board members.”

Recall that McLeroy has a fairly low regard for people who spend their careers researching and writing about their areas of expertise. During the debate over science curriculum standards this past spring, McLeroy declared that “somebody’s gotta stand up to experts!”

Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands:

“I agree with Dr. McLeroy about us as elected officials using good judgment. I read through many resumes and considered very carefully before making my appointment.”

Really? How can that possibly be true? Ms. Cargill couldn’t find one accomplished academic from the scores of colleges and universities across Texas who is more qualified as a social studies expert than someone who runs a conservative evangelical ministry in Massachusetts? Who does she think believes that?

Ms. Knight wasn’t buying any of the nonsense she was hearing: “We need some criteria other than our personal judgment.”


She also countered arguments by far-right board members that outside interest groups were politicizing the process and trying to pressure curriculum writers. They offered no evidence of such pressure, but Ms. Knight noted that statements of board members had clearly put pressure on curriculum writers to craft standards that passed a political litmus test:

“We might think in terms of muzzling our own mouths when the work groups are in session because the comments of board members end up in the media and start the firestorm going and that could impact workgroup members getting e-mails.”

Then Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, (who documented her hatred for public education in her own book) noted that the curriculum writers should expect the state board’s politicians to pressure them.

“It is not the work groups that write or create these TEKS. We are the ones who are statutorily required by the state to write these TEKS. . . .  No, you [curriculum teams] are just trying to implement what we are telling you to do. . . . They [curriculum teams] understand their role is to implement our directives, not write the curriculum.”

In other words, Ms. Dunbar thinks the teachers, academics and other community members serving on the curriculum teams are assistants who should simply carry out their orders from the board.

And what are those “orders”? Just listen to what David Barton and Peter Marshall have to say. They’re the “experts.”

Oh, and the board took no action on the matter. No one is surprised, right?

6 thoughts on “Debating Mediocrity and Expertise

  1. Babs Cargill said:

    “I agree with Dr. McLeroy about us as elected officials using good judgment. I read through many resumes and considered very carefully before making my appointment.”

    I feel sure that she read through many resumes, just like she says. However, the thing that worries me is that “…considered very carefully…” part. It begs the question of WHAT it was that she considered very carefully. I would guess that the thing she considered very hard was “IT.”

    Yes, “IT” is the name of a novel by Stephen King and a horror genre television miniseries based on…well…”IT.” Nonetheless, I recall another “IT” from my past experience. “IT” came to me in the context of yet another argument about whether Christian Neo-Fundamentalist beliefs should be taught in some public school. I do not even recall where “IT” was. All I recall was a statement by an agitated woman who was a public school teacher concerned about “IT.” I cannot remember her exact words, so I will give you the flavor of it with some of my own. Here is approximately what she said:

    They are not getting “IT” at home. They are not getting “IT” from their parents and relatives. They are not getting “IT” from their friends. They are not gettting “IT” from their churches. If we teachers don’t find some way to get “IT” into our teaching in the public schools, our students may very well graduate without “IT.”

    Of course, “IT” was the standard Christian Neo-Fundamentalist package that some teachers would like to be free to espouse and pontificate about in every public school classroom in the United States. I had never heard it referred to as “IT.” Given the track record of certain members of the Texas SBOE, I feel sure that Babs Cargill meant to say that she “…considered IT very carefully…” before selecting social studies experts.

    In case you have never seen it, in the television miniseries, “IT” is a local monster who kills children. He appears to the children as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” and coaxes them into his lair where he kills them. It is perhaps the quintessential take on the concept of the evil clown.

  2. Knight showed some moxie on this one; congratulations on that beam of clear, lucid light. Dunbar et al. use circular argumentation–for no other reason than to win at all costs. Goodbye Enlightenment, hello Byzantium.

  3. Barbara Cargil and Cynthia Dunbar are much to dumb to realize how stupid they sound to rational, reasonable people. No one has to be well edcuated to listen to them and understand how unqualified they are to sit on the Texas SBOE.

  4. Charles –

    Both the novel and the miniseries were about an “other” that took the appearance of a clown and devoured children. I leave the further parallels to others.

  5. Pineyman:

    “Is your refrigerator running? If it is, you better catch it quick before it gets away.”

  6. Go back and listen to last week’s SBOE meeting and see what a mess Leo and Marshall made out of “all men are created equal.”