Dunbar’s Distorted Views on Jefferson

by Dan Quinn

The Texas State Board of Education is getting a lot of (well-deserved) flak for dropping Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the American Declaration of Independence, from the world history curriculum standards for public schools. And board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, who proposed striking Jefferson from those standards, is offering an absurd excuse for what she did.

Dunbar has been reminding reporters that Jefferson still appears in standards for American history and arguing that his inclusion in the world history standards was inappropriate:

“It’s just an issue of being germane. It was world history, and it was a list of political philosophers (from which Jefferson got removed). He’s mentioned in U.S. history and in government where you talk about the Founding Fathers and the political philosophers.”

Dunbar’s statement is both outrageously ignorant and deeply hypocritical.

The Library of Congress Web site notes Jefferson’s influence on the French Revolution and revolutionaries elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. He was even asked to consult in the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. From the Library of Congress Web site’s discussion of Jefferson:

“Recognized in Europe as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson quickly became a focal point or lightning rod for revolutionaries in Europe and the Americas. . . . Until his death Jefferson was convinced that ‘this ball of liberty . . . will roll round the world’ aided by the beacon of the Declaration of Independence.”

“Thomas Jefferson often consulted with Lafayette during the drafting of this French declaration of rights in July 1789. Jefferson’s immersion in the French Revolution and his influence on the Republican leaders can be seen in the surviving documents.”

Frankly, it’s beside the point that Jefferson still appears in the standards for American history. His inclusion is particularly germane to a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. Students should learn that Jefferson was one of America’s greatest political thinkers and that his ideas have inspired not just Americans but other people around the world in their struggles for freedom.

And isn’t Dunbar a proponent of teaching students about American exceptionalism? Of course she is. She and her board allies have spent months unfairly smearing teachers and scholars for allegedly downplaying American exceptionalism in history classrooms. Yet Jefferson’s ideals are among the things that have made America exceptional to many people seeking freedom — and Dunbar doesn’t want world history students to know that.

The truth is that Dunbar wants to shade from students the influence of Jefferson — a Deist who spoke of the importance of a “wall of separation” between church and state — and the Enlightenment ideals he promoted. She prefers that students learn instead about the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, two heroes of fundamentalist Christian conservatives. She succeeded in adding both to the specific world history standard from which she deleted Jefferson.

This is a yet another example of religious extremists like Dunbar dumbing down our children’s public school curriculum in favor of promoting an ideological agenda. It’s one thing to teach students about the Dark Ages, but it’s quite another to take their education back to those times. Yet the latter is what Dunbar and her State Board of Education partners are doing.

UPDATE: Now Gail Lowe, chair of the State Board of Education, has written an essay criticizing media coverage of the board’s decision to remove Thomas Jefferson from the world history curriculum standards. And naturally, her essay is being circulated in an e-mail from the board’s favorite right-wing gadfly, Donna Garner.

In her essay, Lowe calls media coverage of the controversy “woefully inaccurate and blatantly distorted.” She notes that Jefferson remains in American history and government standards from elementary to high school grades.

“No study of American history would be complete without his inclusion. That is why Thomas Jefferson warrants such strong emphasis in the TEKS standards the State Board of Education has approved.”

Yet Lowe predictably ignores the key issue: why drop Jefferson, one of America’s greatest political thinkers, from a world history standard on the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions since the 1700s? Moreover, why change the thrust of the standard by removing the reference to Enlightenment thinkers altogether from that standard? And why add, instead, John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, who were certainly not Enlightenment thinkers?

The reasons are clear to anyone who has followed the statements and actions of Lowe, Dunbar and the board’s other right-wingers over, especially, the past four years. They are obsessed with promoting their own ideological views in public school classrooms. And Jefferson and the Enlightenment, frankly, don’t fit neatly into that narrow worldview. They can’t drop Jefferson from the American history standards — even they realize doing so would be a step too far. But they will do all they can to downplay his influence elsewhere.