Anyone who's watched The Daily Show or The Colbert Report knows there's a humorous side to even the most poisonous political battles. In The Revisionaries, director Scott Thurman skewers the Texas State Board of Education in a similar vein and to great effect. Unless you're a "young-earth creationist" like board member Don McLeroy (pictured above), or a Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson disciple like Don's fellow board member, Cynthia Dunbar, you'll find The Revisionaries quite frightening. But Thurman thankfully manages to keep things light enough that your blood pressure won't increase—at least not to fatal levels.
Every decade, the Texas State Board of Education meets to set new standards for public school textbooks. Publishers are free to write what they want, but for a book to be sold in the state of Texas, it must be approved by this group of 15 locally elected officials, meaning if you don't follow what the guidelines they set, you're not selling a single book. The implications, however, reach farther than just Texas. According to a University of Texas study, somewhere between 45% and 85% of textbooks in America's public schools come from Texas.
In 2010, the board met once again to review and amend the textbook standards. The board was led by McLeroy, a dentist and (to steal a phrase from Mitt Romney) severely conservative Christian, who subscribes to the school of thought that the Earth was created between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago and that man walked with the dinosaurs. Unsurprisingly, then, one of the most fervently debated issues at the first set of hearings is how to teach the theory of evolution. Don and his closest allies, including the aforementioned Dunbar, want to include the words "strengths and weaknesses". They think not including these words is tantamount to intellectual censorship, though they're careful not to call for the inclusion of any sort of intelligent design or creationist language.
Opponents to this group includes a number of moderate and liberal activists, as well as scientists, writers, and professors that come to testify at the public hearings. They believe the "strengths and weaknesses" standard is a slippery slope that can ultimately lead to teaching intelligent design, despite the absence of such explicit language. They also don't equate a hole in the theory of evolution to a "weakness". Just because science hasn't uncovered the source of life doesn't mean Darwinism is a weak or flawed premise.
Ultimately, a "compromise" is reached by the board members, but for all intents and purposes, it's a loss for those on the Left and Center of the political spectrum. But the evolution debate is only the beginning. Months later, the board turns its attention to American history, and things, if it's even possible, get even uglier than they did the first time. But the hearings are now on the public's stream of consciousness, and McLeroy must balance his dental practice and board duties with a heated re-election battle.
The Revisionaries is just flat-out crazy. As is my policy with documentaries, I'm not giving the film a star rating, in order to leave me free to editorialize. So I don't feel conflicted saying Don, Cynthia, and most of their colleagues are out of their minds. Don is quoted saying education is too important not to politicize it, while Cynthia wrote in her book, One Nation Under God, "The establishment of public schools is unconstitutional and even tyrannical." Their American history debates are truly maddening, what with their insistence that discussing racial discrimination in America be removed from the standards, references to hip-hop music be replaced by country, and the 44th President of the United States be consistently referred to as "Barack Hussein Obama" (really, will you be requiring all American presidents to go by their middle names? Also, fuck you.)
Writing about The Revisionaries isn't as fun as watching it was because the Thurman's playful style (particularly when it comes to music) is sadly absent from this post. But he and his team manage to make dull-as-dishwater C-SPAN fodder interesting and entertaining. The cuts to the more rational board members are always deliberate and, nine times out of ten, they elicit laughter. Don, too, is such an unusual guy that you can't help but begrudgingly admire his earnestness while simultaneously being scared to death by his power and influence. Still, when he (spoiler alert!) loses his seat on the board, you'll feel a twang of sympathy for him. He means well. He's just extraordinarily misguided.
The Revisionaries is fascinating if for no other reason than you get to see how far some of our fellow countrymen and women are detached from reality. Their scorn for "science" and "experts" is comical but bizarre and very real. Having faith is one thing but having faith at the expense of logic, fact, and ironically enough, compassion is another. The two schools of thought can be reconciled easily enough if one has an open mind, but the people depicted in The Revisionaries do not. I'm happy Thurman and company have shed some light on them in an amusing way, but in the process, he scared me shitless and made me angry. His film is one that will undoubtably stir you on some level, and though you the feelings might not always be pleasant, at least we still have seven years before this process must start up again.