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When Curriculum is Media: The Important Lessons of ‘The Revisionaries’

When we adults engage in the constant scrutiny of mass media and the effects on children and teens, it’s easy to point the finger at pop culture, for better or worse. I’m pretty positive overall: hence this blog. Others are more negative, and they are sometimes supported by data, sometimes simply driven by the need to scapegoat.

But what all of us overlook every day is that curriculum itself is the biggest, most powerful multimedia influencer of youth by far. In fact, curriculum is so effective as a persuader, legitimizer, and arbiter of what is “true and real” that it has pulled a kind of Kaiser Soze sleight of hand on society: convinced everyone that it’s not a form of media that presents certain human-constructed notions as wholly external, objective facts. Instead, students are provided with curriculum in much the same way that religious adherents are provided with scripture, as something whose source and authorship are not be discussed, much less questioned. And no, this analogy is not as inappropriate as it may first seem.

Photo courtesy Kino Lorber.

Interestingly, this notion of a captive audience—one that can’t really talk back and “question the text”—is vividly illustrated by the day job of Don McLeroy, whose tenure with  the Texas State Board of Education is the central dramatic focus of The Revisionaries. As a dentist, he holds forth on his religious, political, and scientific views (these are intertwined, ‘natch) while patients are in his chair and unable to dialogue with him, let alone oppose his views. Actually, just take a look at the clip below and you’ll see what I mean. Or maybe you’ll feel that I’m overstating things, which is fine. The point is, McElroy himself would very likely agree with the idea that “curriculum is media”—which is why, he’d maintain, that every sentence, every instance of word choice, in a school textbook deserves critical analysis because their combined meanings will largely be passed on to students as truths.

Of course the manner in which McLeroy and his allies “interrogate” such texts is something I would take issue with, not to mention the way in which they’d revise them to make them more palatable with fundamentalism, both religious and political. Hence the, um, title of the film. In any case, this eye-opening doc from director Scott Thurman is available today on home video, and I urge you to check it out with the goal of perhaps obtaining screening rights so that it can be shared with students and faculty alike. Thurman doesn’t do a flashy job, but rather a highly competent one, letting the material (and folks like McLeroy) speak for themselves. Sometimes, though, that’s all that a smart documentarian needs to do: choose the subject and the subject matter carefully, capture the former speaking about the latter with conviction, and let the story tell itself. Those audience who fully grasp what the stakes are—a group that includes McLeroy supporters as well as opponents such as Kathy Miller and her supporters—don’t need a lot of loud drama: the battle for the intellect of America’s young people is all the more chilling for how quiet and out of the spotlight it is.

About Peter Gutierrez