Matthew LaClair’s Op-Ed in the LA Times

Matthew LaClair is the high school student who made headlines when he recorded his (public) high school history teacher preaching fundamental Christianity in class.

He was last seen leading the charge to get a mistake-riddled, conservatively-biased Government textbook corrected or purged from the school systems.

He has an Op-Ed piece in today’s LA Times about his goal.

In one of my classes, we use the 10th edition of “American Government” by James Q. Wilson, a well-known conservative academic, and John J. DiIulio, a political scientist and former head of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. (2005). The text contains a statement, repeated three times, that students may not pray in public schools. In this edition of the text, the authors drive the point home with a photograph of students holding hands and praying outside a school. The caption reads: “The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school.”

I knew this was false. In fact, students are allowed to pray in schools; courts have ruled many times that a student’s right to pray may not be abridged. What’s generally impermissible is state-sponsored prayer, in which school officials lead prayer or students are called on or required to pray. It seemed clear to me that the purpose of the discussion in the textbook was to indoctrinate, not to educate.

Matthew elaborates on several other mistakes as well:

The authors neglect to mention the growing scientific consensus on this subject. They dismiss those who are concerned about global warming — that is, the overwhelming majority of scientists — as “activists” motivated not by data but by “entrepreneurial politics.” Those who deny or downplay it are described as “skeptical scientists.”

Pointing out dissent within the scientific community is appropriate. Suggesting that the majority, but not the minority, is politically motivated is not appropriate. If a controversy truly exists, then the authors should not instruct students which side to “support.”

The Center for Inquiry even drafted a detailed report (PDF) listing the relevant parts of the book — the incorrect or biased passages that are seen all too often.

Matthew closes the piece with this:

As Americans, we should stand up for our common values. We should champion education and settle for nothing less than the best. Our teachers should do the same and should not misuse their positions to promote their personal agendas.

Well said.

Not coincidentally, one of the textbook’s authors, James Q. Wilson, also has an opinion piece in today’s Times.

Right out of the gate, he’s on the defensive:

Of course some textbooks are politically biased. It is not hard to understand why. Opinion surveys and studies of campaign contributions show that the great majority of academic social scientists are liberals, so no one should be astonished to learn that some liberals write left-leaning textbooks and that some of them assign them to their classes.

When he uses language like that, it’s hard to believe he’s going to be politically neutral on anything…

Let’s look at his arguments (emphasis mine):

But of late there has been a sudden flurry of charges that our book has a deep conservative bias. The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization devoted to “secularism and planetary ethics,” published a lengthy complaint saying that we had said the country was founded on a belief in “original sin” and that the text misinterprets the Supreme Court’s rulings on school prayer. Two letters from space scientists say we give too little support to the idea of global warming.

And a New Jersey student, known for his activism in promoting 1st Amendment rights, says that a caption in the book, accompanying a photo of students praying outside a public school, falsely suggests that no student may ever pray inside a school building. And he complains that we unfairly called scientists who believe in global warming “activists.”

“Falsely suggests”? The picture shows kids praying outside of school. The caption reads: “The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school.” Nothing false about that.

Original sin? The authors did say the colonists believed in it and founded the country on that principle. They write:

“To the colonists all of mankind suffered from original sin, symbolized by Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Since no one was born innocent, no one could be trusted with power. Thus the Constitution had to be designed in such a way as to curb the darker side of human nature. Otherwise everyone’s rights would be in jeopardy.”

Of course, that’s historically inaccurate. Some believed it. Not everyone. As CFI mentions, there’s no evidence that “original sin” played any role in the drafting of our Consitution.

But apparently, everyone just read the wrong edition of the book.

Wilson’s entire argument seems to be that CFI and Matthew were picking apart the 10th edition of the book, which came out in 2005/2006.

Had they all just read the 11th edition, they would’ve seen all was fair and balanced!

As for school prayer, we made it perfectly clear in our book that what has been banned by the Supreme Court is state-sponsored prayer. It’s true that a sloppily written photo caption was taken out of the 11th edition — as our critics would have seen if they had looked at the most recent version of the book (which was in print long before they complained).

“Long before”? The 11th edition was published November 30th, 2007. About five months ago. The actual copyright date is 2008. Obviously not enough time for school districts to get the new versions.

The space scientists think that we were too critical of the global warming argument. In the 10th edition of the book, which they read, we wrote that there was disagreement among scientists about this matter. In the 11th edition, which they did not read, we said that the disagreement was much less, though it still exists. What happened between the 10th and 11th editions? Among other things, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a new report in which the evidence for greenhouse gases affecting Earth’s temperature was stronger…

That evidence was available long before the IPCC’s report came out.

“Disagreement”? Hardly. Scientists knew about the evidence for man-made global warming en masse. Hell, Al Gore‘s movie An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006 and that was well after the scientists were already in consensus on the issue.

CFI’s report even states:

… the U.S. National Academy of Sciences… issued a joint statement in 2005 with 10 other National Academies of Science declaring that “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action. It is vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now, to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions.”

And no word on whether the “activist” label was removed in the new edition, either.

The Committee for Inquiry ignored the book and cherry-picked sentences.

Well, CFI has quite a few sentences… and several very long passages. They looked at the 10th edition in depth. And it hardly seems fair for the author to discredit that version of the book in lieu of a newer one most students have never seen and chalk all the major mistakes up to outdated information, when current information was present for many years prior.

If anyone who reads this article believes the text is biased, they should write to me. If they think it is not biased, they should write the Center for Inquiry.

Looks like Wilson’s going to be receiving a lot of letters… or phone calls.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

    Thanks for the excellent summary.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Why can’t conservatives be honest?

  • Sudo

    I’m surprised there are still text books like these in public schools. Most of the ones that I have seen recently are laced throughout with what I would call liberal or politically-correct bias, rather than conservative. Either way, it would be great if the facts about things could be taught without attempting to indoctrinate the reader, regardless of topic.

  • http://www.bernerbits.com Derek

    Why can’t conservatives be honest?

    Because to be honest with others, they have to be honest with themselves first.

  • Julie

    I’m so impressed with this kid.

    I have some problems with our Health textbook at the school where I teach. It doesn’t say anything about birth control at all and only teaches abstinence. And apparently, one of the consequences of having sex out of wedlock is “low self esteem.” (Try selling that one to a 17-year-old.) Considering I teach in one of the roughest areas of LA, where many of the kids are already pregnant or fathers, this is totally ridiculous, of course.

    But have I ever done anything about it? Nope! Too busy living my life. Some other teachers and I considered making a supplemental lesson plan about birth control options, and then we didn’t. So there you have it. Matthew LaClair rocks, and he’s inspiring me to maybe get off my butt and speak out. Maybe.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Sure, there are errors in the textbook, but there will be errors in any textbook. How do we know that the errors in this one are greater than average, much less that they are the product of intentional political bias?

    From my experience, high school history textbooks are desperately in need of political topics. Most are so dry and factual that they turn everyone off from history. Even history teachers find them boring. Of course, textbooks should get the facts right, but should also advance opinions, labeling them as such. But because of hypersensitive parents, textbooks have been diluted of anything as remotely objectionable as an opinion.

  • DSimon

    Sorry to be nitpicky, but your response here seems to be based on a mis-reading of what Wilson said.

    “Falsely suggests”? The picture shows kids praying outside of school. The caption reads: “The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school.” Nothing false about that.

    Wilson peeves me off too, but in this case, he made a perfectly correct statement about LaClair’s statement that the photo and caption were false.

    Well. perfectly correct except for how Wilson’s use of “suggests” distracts from how the photo and caption are unquestionably outright saying that prayer is forbidden in schools. But that’s a separate issue.

  • DSimon

    How do we know that the errors in this one are greater than average, much less that they are the product of intentional political bias?

    Well, it’s kind of beside the point whether or not this book has more errors than the average history textbook. Errors in textbooks are generally just bad, and the fewer errors the better.

    As for these particular errors being the product of political bias, that seems pretty clear to me. Looking through the PDF linked in the original post, the topics the book is under criticism for are:

    1) Implying scientific controversy about global warming where there is essentially none.

    2) Creating the impression that prayer in schools is forbidden by law.

    3) Making factually incorrect statements about court cases related to same-sex marriage, and stating that one of the “costs” of the overturning of an anti-sodomy law would be that “The Court, and not Congress or the state legislatures, might decide whether same-sex marriages were legal.”

    4) Stating that the Constitution was designed expressly to handle human nature as informed by the religious concept of “original sin”, when the historical information does not indicate this to be true.

    5) Implying that the general separation of church and state was a minority opinion integrated into the Constitution at the last minute, again contradicting the historical evidence.

    6) Stating that the Supreme Court approved the use of “In God We Trust” on currency, when in fact this has never been a Supreme Court case. The laws regarding the meaning of the Supreme Court refusing to take on a case specifically state that such rejections are not to be interpreted as the Supreme Court expressing an opinion about the case.

    These are not errors along the lines of messing up the date of some battle or accidentally misattributing a quote. All of the errors mentioned in the PDF have a common thread: direct endorsement of a conservative position on a controversial political topic.

    Maybe there are other errors in the textbooks where liberal positions are endorsed. Such errors, as far as I’m concerned, would only make the book worse, rather than evening it out. “Two wrongs” and all that.

    But because of hypersensitive parents, textbooks have been diluted of anything as remotely objectionable as an opinion.

    It’s not the job of history books to teach kids which path to take on political issues; it’s to present the facts. It’s absolutely possible to do this in an entertaining and interesting way without endorsing particular political opinions.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Well, I’m happy that they’re correcting errors, but what are they trying to say by singling out this book (and making headlines about it too)? If people want to say that conservatives are dishonest, this is not a convincing way to argue so.

    It’s not the job of history books to teach kids which path to take on political issues; it’s to present the facts. It’s absolutely possible to do this in an entertaining and interesting way without endorsing particular political opinions.

    Possible, perhaps, but is it easy? Is it being done successfully? Is it really representative of historical scholarship?

  • Paul

    One statement omitted from the CFI report, but contained in both the 10th and 11th editions of the Wilson-DiIulio textbook is particularly indefensible. On page 86 of the 10th edition, it reads: “The Supreme Court has ruled that children cannot pray in public schools . . .”

    I don’t understand how a statement like that could have gotten past everyone all these years.

  • D

    Here’s a video of Matthew LaClair handling a ridiculous interview with a lot of class:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQIqyLv8K3I

    Apparently the interviewer is 26. I’m pretty sure that this is supposed to be legitimate…

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