The Enlightenment Goes Dark

By Carl Zimmer | March 12, 2010 5:09 pm

jeffersonToday the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson were disappeared from Texas.

Here’s a live blog from this morning’s hearings at the Texas State Board of Education. (Emphasis mine.)

9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. She wants to drop the reference to Enlightenment ideas (replacing with “the writings of”) and to Thomas Jefferson. She adds Thomas Aquinas and others. Jefferson’s ideas, she argues, were based on other political philosophers listed in the standards. We don’t buy her argument at all. Board member Bob Craig of Lubbock points out that the curriculum writers clearly wanted to students to study Enlightenment ideas and Jefferson. Could Dunbar’s problem be that Jefferson was a Deist? The board approves the amendment, taking Thomas Jefferson OUT of the world history standards.

9:40 – We’re just picking ourselves up off the floor. The board’s far-right faction has spent months now proclaiming the importance of emphasizing America’s exceptionalism in social studies classrooms. But today they voted to remove one of the greatest of America’s Founders, Thomas Jefferson, from a standard about the influence of great political philosophers on political revolutions from 1750 to today.

9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “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.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “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.” Not only does Dunbar’s amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.

Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was arguably America’s first paleontologist. Which certainly didn’t help his case in Texas.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Our Dear Leaders Speak

Comments (42)

  1. Andy

    I think I speak for us all when I say AAAARRGGGHHHHH!

  2. You do have to wonder if Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings played a role. Probably decided that Jefferson’s personal life didn’t exemplify the kind of morality they’re pushing.

  3. Matt

    As a Texan, my initial reaction was disgust, but that quickly was replaced with “whew!” It could have been so, so, so much worse. I love Jefferson as much as the next guy, but damn that board had the will, the ignorance, and the power to do so much more damage.

  4. Josh

    If religion was their motivation leaving Hobbes in the curiculum was a bad move. Have they read “Leviathan”? I also think Hobbes’ work on Social Contract theory is as antithetical as is possible to the current ideology of the political right, so I am delighted that kids will still be exposed to his thinking.

  5. wcf

    This is precisely the sort of thing I expect from Texas Republicans. This is probably only the beginning.

  6. Some days it really does seem as if the barbarians are at the gate. and others it seems like they’re inside the walls

  7. Dave Thompson

    What did we expect from Bush country? Texans are back in the 1800’s with their guns and ego. Can we give them back to Mexico do you think?

  8. Matt – it did get worse. Follow the link to the liveblog and read down — by 12:35 pm, they’d voted down an amendment that would have made sure students learned “the Founders believed religious freedom was so important that they insisted on separation of church and state.”

  9. I live in Texas. I live on the second floor of the vacant lot of education. I used to just live in the vacant lot, but there are too many conservatives on the ground.

    Isn’t there any way that this can be fixed via the need to answer this on national standard testing and AP?

  10. Mick Mancuso

    I have sent an email to the top four textbook publishers (according to Wikipedia) urging them not to adopt the Texas Board of Education standards. Probably just spitting in the wind but its the only action I could think of taking that had any chance of being noted.

    The contacts that I used are:
    ‘’ — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (probably not the right email but the only one I could find)

    ‘’ — Pearson Education

    ‘’ — Cengage Learning — she’s the Media relations person

    ‘’ — McGraw Hill

    I kept my notice polite, but firm and pointed. I did refer to the standards as ignorant and the people as biased and as having agendas that were antithetical to decent education.

  11. Robert

    The effect of this is going to be that all resumes from Texas are filed in the shredder.

  12. FastEddie

    This is why I will never, ever vote for a Republican.

  13. Gah. Stomach-churning. I heaved a mega-sigh of relief when GWB wasn’t humiliating the US any more: it was not easy being an American in Europe during either of his administrations. I love Texas, lived there as a child, and know that not everyone in Texas is blind, deaf, and dumb. Hope that someday the political will in Texas changes and students are once again given the education they deserve.

  14. I am a product of public education in Texas and have often cited it as the tallest hurdle in my adult life. And, from Fox news no less…

  15. SciLogue–

    Did you read beyond the headline of that Fox News column? It’s an astonishing, Orwellian twist to what actually took place.

    On a separate note, I’m astonished that the board didn’t try to pass judgment on global warming, which I mention here:

  16. JohnT

    Hey, we are only #49 in education here in Texas and our Governor Hair Ball as promised to get us past Mississippi into #50. It may take a long time to recover from the Bush-Perry years.

  17. J.M.

    I keep seeing conservatives mention (also in that link offered above) some other Texas board of educators trying to delete “Christmas,” “Mother Teresa” etc. from the curriculum in Texas. One blog described it thusly:

    Last night, Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, were all added back to World History. They were all previously removed from by an unelected group of educrats who were allowed to make changes before the State Board of Education votes.

    Specifically the “unelected group of educrats” — who are these people? Do they have any power? This other unelected board’s official name is never mentioned in any article (that I have run across at least), and it seems like they are setting up a “straw man,” and sowing fear among conservatives so that they can push through their own agenda by “holding back the liberal hordes.”

  18. kirk

    The “unelected group of educrats” work for the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The commissioner of education is appointed by the governor. The last 17 commissioners have been avowed communist vegans who hid their true beliefs using vegan mind tricks :).

    Many of these fine folks are graduates of Texas A&M (for example) which has a secret underground mag-lev train to Moscow or Bejing or both.

    Many of the educrats may not have been baptized.

  19. I’ve been thinking about this all day and I think I finally “get it.” Thomas Jefferson doesn’t belong in that group associated with the Enlightenment of Europe, because he didn’t want America to follow in the footsteps of European countries. He didn’t want our country modeled after theirs and so his philosophy was directed towards his readers, the Americans. Since the Enlightenment occurred mostly in Europe, he is out of place with that group of authors.

  20. peter kenney

    Jefferson is only important if we say he is?….Is this the theory at work here? Or, perhaps Texans just do not like Virginians. The only way to describe this is DUMB. Although the Enlightenment was a body of thought primarily directed at Europeans, Jefferson had spent a good deal of time in France and certainly had been immersed in the flow of Enlightenment thought. He, like Franklin, knew many of its contemporary French proponents. To eliminate Jefferson from a list of Enlightenment figures without placing him elsewhere is ridiculous. He certainly was affected by the Enlightenment, even if he established his own and individual philosophical direction. Recently I was speaking with a woman in office in Texas and when I gave her my e-mail address, which has a hyphen in it, she asked, “What’s a hyphen?” Texas, WOW!

  21. RickK

    Dunbar, the fundamentalist far Right, and Fox News are a greater threat to America than all Muslim terrorists combined. Dunbar demonstrates that her hatred of America’s founding principles is just as deep as Osama bin Laden’s, and her position has allowed her to do more long term damage to the continued viability of our country than Osama could ever do.

  22. Katharine

    Meh. If this persists, when I start my professoring career, I’m just gonna toss the resume of anyone who went to high school in Texas in the trash unless they can prove reasonably that they understand what was left off of their curriculum when they were kids.

    This is legal, as I understand.

  23. Shouldn’t book publishers force Texas to pay more for fantasy?

  24. In what way has the Enlightenment and Jefferson disappeared from Texas?

    First of all, the creationist philosophers of the Enlightenment believed in things that make the Texas School Board look like Darwinist fundamentalists.

    “…lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other, he [God] hath placed those systems at immense distances from one another.” — Isaac Newton, mathematician, 1687

    Second, Jefferson is well known in Texas and all the books on Jefferson in the thousands of libraries in Texas have not magically and miraculously disappeared as far as I know.

  25. Erwin

    This is a big win for not-the-USA. Other countries now have an extra edge in the future. As long as they don’t screw up harder. Even in that case, the damage is less.
    I think anyone with a college education or higher, who learned a foreign language (i.e. not English), travelled outside the country or wears glasses might want to leave the country. Any reference to Pol Pot’s anti-intellectual revolutionary massacre is entirely coincidental. I recommend The Netherlands: we are crazy but we aren’t nuts.

  26. Nicole

    Heads up, Jefferson isn’t the only person lost from the history books. Check out this blog post outlining some of the influential women who are no longer considered worthy of the social studies classroom.

  27. NV

    Um, have these folks in Texas read Voltaire? They’re in for a shock.

  28. Zak

    Well Andy you didn’t speak for me… which is a good thing… the first post having that many expletives would be a bad sign -.-

    @ Katharine I believe you are right, It is legal to deny employment based on education level.

    @peter kenney – unfortunately, yes. The education children and young adults are taught is believed to be truth and if we put theistic spins on the education we end up with more people believing that we are a theistic country. This of couse leads to further bigotry which puts not only Atheists, as it is now, but other religions in a bad light when they speak up. When Atheists speak up and say X is unconstitutional we are blamed for being oppressive, when a Christian says X Y and Z are unconstitutional no one bats an eyelash.

  29. I discussed the Enlightenment in my recent blog post: The forgotten “ism”

  30. Greg Peterson

    I happen to be reading an interesting book, “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America” by Lee Alan Dugatkin. Jefferson fought for America to be recognized for its natural resources and wonders with a righteous, some might say jingoistic, fervor. If he did nothing else more patriotic than this, conservatives should still embrace him. And if he did nothing based more on Enlightenment principles than explore and observe the world, he should be embraced by the liberals who are the Enlightenment’s heirs. Despite his rather considerable flaws, Jefferson is a person who can be celebrated across the spectrum. Not to include him a textbook like this is sheer idiocy.

  31. Write your state Board of Education. They adopt the books for their states. Tell them in no uncertain terms you do not want your children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces and your community’s children taught with these biased books. Not only because of the lies and omissions but because it will lead to ignorance when compared to education world wide. You must know science to produce scientists, engineers and thinkers who will produce the new discoveries, ideas and innovations. You must have free access to ideas on which to build. But if we get rid of the stuff that does not fit into the religious right’s way of thinking then Jesus will come, there will be rapture for the especially blessed, and the rest of us (including those in the wrong churches) will get to experience hell.

  32. Janice Baldwin

    I have not been able to determine if information on Thomas Jefferson has been completely removed from the textbooks or just in this particular segment concerning “the writings of -” formerly referred to “Enlightenment” segment. If no mention or information on Jefferson’s role as a founding Father is provided then there is a huge void. On another note, it is a fallacy that Jefferson was a deist. He understood that true Christianity would prosper without the aid of the civil government and history has proven him correct.

  33. @Greg Petterson, good coincidence I just finished reading that book too! Loved it, especially where it discusses the fervor of Jefferson demenor at times!

  34. Sylvia

    Janice Baldwin,

    BS…Jefferson was a deist who denied the Bible as divine:

    From the link, “Jefferson rejected the Bible as divine revelation and rejected the divinity of Jesus. In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson’s appeal was to the God of the Deist, “Nature’s God,” not specifically to the God of Christianity (see letter dated Sep. 14, 1813, to Jefferson from John Adams equating “Nature’s God” with “the revelation from nature”).”

  35. Dennis Casteen

    Bravo for the Texas State Board of Education! Jefferson may have been an eloquent writer, but he did not contribute original ideas with respect to the Enlightenment. Ms Dunbar and the Board majority are correct.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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