[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]
The Revisionaries is a documentary that made me angry in the way it was intended to. I remember following the Texas Board of Education textbook story as it was unfolding, and was outraged by the ideological muck-up spearheaded by Don McLeroy, a member of the board. The repercussions of their actions will affect education in Texas and other states for at least a decade.
The whole argument stemmed from a desire for supposed balance, that intellectually bankrupt idea that there is always validity to both sides of an issue. (Only dunces think both sides of an issue are equally valid at all times, or that there are always only two sides to every issue.) It's the same reasoning used to force intelligent design into science classes, and results in a site like Conservapedia, the conservative version of Wikipedia.
So in the interest of fairness and balance, here are both sides of something I learned from The Revisionaries. On the one hand, Don McLeroy is a cretin. But on the other hand, Don McLeroy's a cretin who is sincere in his backward beliefs.
If you aren't familiar with the Texas Board of Education story from a few years back, here's a bit of background. This 15-member board gets together every 10 years to write the textbook standards for the state. This includes content they'd like to see covered in textbooks as well as content they'd like to see omitted. Just how specific can they get with their requests? In one scene, McLeroy suggests social studies/history textbooks should no longer include a section on hip hop and should instead include a section on country music.
These decisions have repercussions throughout the nation. Since Texas is so huge and purchases many high school textbooks, many companies will write their textbooks in accordance with their state standards. The publishing companies have to tread a fine line since the content needs to also be palatable to other states as well. The film covers battles over both science textbooks (predominantly the evolution issue, because somehow we never got past Scopes) and history.
The Revisionaries presents the issue by letting the primary subjects speak for themselves. I think it's a slightly more successful culture war documentary than Jesus Camp in that regard, and I liked Jesus Camp. Radio host Mike Papantonio seemed a bit on the periphery of the Evangelical indoctrination issue to provide a counterpoint to the camp stuff. In The Revisionaries, the counterpoint to the board comes from Kathy Miller, who runs an advocacy group called the Texas Freedom Network, and anthropology professor Ron Wetherington. Both Miller and Wetherington live in Texas and have tussled with McLeroy and others over this very issue on multiple occasions.
So who is Don McLeroy? He's a dentist (not a bad thing -- I'm no anti-dentite), but he's also a total nudnik with the intellectual depth of Petri dish. You see, McLeroy is a young-earth creationist. That means he thinks the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old. On top of that, he believes that man and dinosaur roamed the planet together, and Noah had dinosaurs on the ark. He despises evolution because he has such a misconception of it, and he can barely articulate his own ides with any clarity. This was a guy elected to decide Texas textbook standards.
These things I knew going into the film having seen him on the news. But seeing him on film filled me with incredible rage. There's something about proud anti-intellectualism on screen that angers me to no end. At one point, McLeroy even says that the layperson knows more than the experts when it comes to science. (Oh yeah, bucko? How about you explain string theory to me.) If a lot of other Americans believe that nonsense, it explains why this country is falling behind China, Japan, Canada, and Finland in education.
Cynthia Dunbar also infuriated me. She was a fellow board member who helped pass the new standards and is every bit as disingenuous as McLeroy, if not more so. Dunbar is crafty and educated -- she teaches law at Liberty University, the Evangelical Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell. She wants to make it seem like she's fighting for intellectual freedom, but it's all about pushing an agenda. Of course, all that fancy book-learnin' at Falwell U can't hide the hypocrisy in Dunbar's words. At one point she stresses the importance of intellectual freedom and hearing opposing views to scientific ideas, and later she says she loves Liberty University since it's a place that embraces a single ideology and way of thinking.
The only sense of critical commentary you get from director Scott Thurman is some oboe when McLeroy's on screen. It goes well with his fuddy, fumbling ideas, and his twitchy, self-satisfied look after he's supposedly made a great point. It's restrained throughout, but it gets a message across quietly. By comparison, I almost felt like yelling "You're so wrong!" at McLeroy on screen, as if the mook was right in front of me.
A few times in the movie McLeroy says that evolutionists believe we come from trees. He also tries to explain how all animals were settled in Noah's ark, dionsaurs included. He doesn't account for the plesiosaurus, trilobites, or the mighty pterodactyl. That might be too much to think about for this proudly ignorant fella. Critical thinking doesn't make for a good young-earth creationist, but a lack of critical thinking won't hurt your chances if you want to be on the Texas Board of Education.
Again, this guy was elected to decide education standards. Elected! How can that not make you incredibly angry?
The Revisionaries is a great glimpse of the culture war and also a wake-up call to anyone who cares about education. There's a sense that people who love facts need to get up, get into it, and get involved somehow. If not, we wind up in the wastelands that are lamented in books like Anti-Intellectualism in America Life, The Age of American Unreason, and so on. It's films like this that make us remember why certain battles are worth fighting, mainly because we can't let our dumber angels triumph over our better ones.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: I hate Texas. More specifically, I hate the Texas Board of Education. Actual, legitimate hate. There is so much in The Revisionaries that made me immensely angry, but I honestly have to commend the filmmakers on what they have done. The movie is shockingly even-handed, and if I believed in Creationism, I would probably be elated for exactly the opposite reason. As much time is given to the people who hate logic and science as those who promote it. So I don't feel like I was manipulated emotionally. My anger comes from the information that was presented and not the way it was presented. But I am angry. Oh, so angry. I wish there had been a little more context for the whole thing (and that some of the amendments were given more explanation), but that wasn't a major issue. I also missed some reactions from the students that are being affected by this whole thing. I wonder how they feel about this. I wonder if it means anything to them yet. I hope so, and I hope they are able to find a proper education after high school. 80 - Great