Closing the Book

June 26, 2012
by
6 mins read

The story of Jamestown isn’t what you might think. Despite what you were taught in school, the essential lesson of the early American settlement isn’t the story of the 127 English men and boys who arrived in 1607 seeking profit, or the 80 percent of them who died of starvation and disease by 1610. The real historical upshot of Jamestown, according to a group of Tea Party activists in Nassau County, is the triumph of capitalism over socialism.

According to a critique by a “textbook review committee” affiliated with a Tea Party group called the Patriots of Nassau County, district textbooks should emphasize that the colony began to prosper only after each man began to farm his own plot, and abandoned the idea that each should give to and take from a “common store.”

“This was an early form of socialism,” the critique maintains. “Once the colonists had their own land on which to farm and sell crops (the American way), the settlement started to prosper.”

The page-by-page critique of Nassau County textbooks was compiled in May by a volunteer committee of six women with strong Tea Party sympathies. The committee had 49 specific complaints about six textbooks that the school district was planning to buy for social studies and history classes. The committee contends the texts glorify Islam, downplay the role of Christianity in the founding of the country, display a liberal political bias and denigrate U.S. capitalism in favor of socialism.

The group even expressed concerns that public school students are being subtly inculcated with Sharia law.

“Our children are being misled and primed to, unwittingly, accept Sharia law in the future,” wrote one Fernandina Beach resident (who preferred to not be named here) in the cover letter that accompanied the packet. As antidote, several committee members recommended students be required to learn that the brutal realities of Sharia law include 100 lashes or stoning to death for adultery. One reviewer recommended junior high students be taught that Muslims practice female genital mutilation.

The critique was presented to the Nassau County School Board in an agenda item hastily added before the start of the May 10 meeting, and Nassau County Superintendent John Ruis promised to make sure the group’s concerns were fully vetted. He has since ordered all seven district middle and high schools to convene committees to review the complaints.

Ruis’ decision to embrace rather than dismiss the concerns likely has as much to do with his personal belief as his political acumen or interest in public involvement in decision-making. A fundamentalist Christian, Ruis has himself previously embraced some anti-intellectual positions. As he told The Florida Times-Union in 2008, he is a strong believer in the biblical creation story rather than the scientifically accepted theory of evolution, which he believes has many “holes” in it. And in 2010, he blocked the formation of a Gay Straight Alliance at Yulee High School, suspending meetings of all after-school clubs in order to block gay students and their supporters from meeting. His actions invited a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which was settled in 2009. The ACLU received $40,000 in attorneys’ fees and the school district agreed to a permanent injunction against preventing the formation of gay straight alliance clubs and discriminating against the students involved.

But Ruis’ decision to cater to the irrational fears of a fringe group speaks volumes about the pervasive political influence of Tea Party activists in Florida’s conservative counties. Similar textbook challenges have emerged elsewhere, part of a coordinated statewide campaign. In December 2010, Tea Party activists in South Florida began recruiting volunteers in each Florida school district to form a “Textbook Action Committee.” The committees were tasked with demanding that publishers make changes to more than 25 “Islam-biased” textbooks, and threatened have the books removed from Florida schools unless publishers ceded to their demands. Organizers even offered sample critiques of textbooks, complete with page citations.

The effort in Nassau County is a microcosm of a battle in “virtually every state in the country,” says Fernandina Beach High School social studies teacher Ronnie Sapp, who’s been a teacher in Nassau County for 25 years and served on the Fernandina Beach City Commission for 24 years. While the public certainly has the right to question textbook content, Sapp says, he questions the involvement of a group with such overtly political aims. He fears Tea Party truth committees will stifle teachers and destroy academic freedom.

“First it is the textbook. Then we want to come in and listen to you lecture. Then we want to look at your homework assignments,” he says. “I do wonder, what is next?”

Fernandina Beach resident Kim Page attended the May 10 School Board meeting and heard the Tea Party’s concerns as presented by Fernandina Beach resident John Eklund. The fact that School Board Member Amanda Young added Eklund to the agenda right before the start of 6:30 p.m. meeting bothered her, as did the fact that Eklund had a letter published in the Fernandina Beach News-Leader the day of the meeting, promising the public would be invited to comment — even before the agenda had been amended.

Page senses that the letter, Eklund’s presentation and the eager reception from Superintendent Ruis were orchestrated to give the impression that the Tea Party’s views are widely held.

“I got up and addressed the School Board myself,” Page says. “I told them that I don’t see parents lined up here, objecting to these textbooks.” She adds, “When a group comes before you as the School Board it doesn’t mean they speak for all of us.”

Page says she’s since received several anonymous notes thanking her for speaking up. Both she and Sapp served on the Fernandina Beach High School committee to review the group’s complaints.

The six textbooks examined by the committee are being considered for purchase by the School District after teachers at each school reviewed the books, talked to publishers and met with their school’s parents advisory board to discuss the choices. Each school forwarded its ranking of the textbooks to Director of Secondary Education Dale Braddock and Ruis, who then invited the public to weigh in.

Following the Tea Party critique, however, Ruis dusted off a procedure implemented by the School Board in 1990. It says that anyone with a complaint about school materials can file a “Request for Reconsideration of Materials” and submit it to the principal at the school where the text is used. Within five working days, the principal must convene his or her appointed Intellectual Freedom Committee to review the concerns and make a ruling. If the complainant disagrees with the committee’s determination, he or she can appeal, and the School Board will make the final decision.

Because the May 10 concerns were submitted to the district staff and the School Board, Ruis retroactively ordered the principals at all the schools using the textbooks — seven middle and high schools — to convene their Intellectual Freedom Committees. Because there had been no previous complaints to review, the principals were required first to create the committees. Most comprised teachers, guidance counselors, parents, community leaders, principals and assistant principals — though each school used a somewhat different mix.

The committees then met in late May and early June to decide if the complaints were valid.

All of them ruled that the complaints weren’t valid.

“[Intellectual Freedom Committee members] looked at examples in the textbook ‘World History: Patterns of Interaction’ and determined that the information about Islam, the second-most popular religion in the world, was relevant and necessary in a world history course,” they concluded. “In order to combat stereotypes, students must learn about culture other than their own.”

The Tea Party has come a long way since the Obama-as-Hitler posters first began to surface in early 2009. Though an April Washington Post-ABC News poll found that most Americans weren’t interested in learning more about the movement and thought the party incapable of fielding a credible presidential candidate, it’s managed to shape the debate on everything from universal healthcare to Obama’s birth records. It has also dramatically affected elections, ousting establishment Republicans and forcing the political conversation to the fringes. The Republican Party has moved so far to the right that Karl Rove and Jeb Bush are now viewed as centrists, while most Republicans agree Ronald Reagan would be unelectable today.

The Tea Party has also made significant inroads in local politics. Tea Party candidate Sarah Pelican won a seat on the Fernandina Beach City Commission and forged a voting bloc with two other commissioners. Clerk of the Courts John Crawford is a Patriots favorite for his constant checks on county spending.

In Florida, Tea Party-backed Marco Rubio dealt fellow Republican (and former governor) Charlie Crist his first defeat in 24 years in the 2010 U.S. Senate race by forcing him to run as an Independent, then soundly defeating him. Three years later, Marco Rubio is generating vice-presidential buzz.

The Nassau County textbook initiative, in addition to being part of a statewide effort, mirrors similar efforts elsewhere in the United States.

In 2010, for instance, the Texas State Board of Education made 100 amendments to its standards between January and March. Today, Texas schoolbooks must maintain that U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt was ultimately redeemed by spy lists obtained from the Soviet Union after it was dismantled, and require the inclusion of both conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly and the National Rifle Association. In Tennessee this year, the Tea Party pushed to have any mention of slavery removed from the textbooks. And the Florida effort continues apace. In Sarasota County, the anti-Muslim group Act!Up aired video of their interrogations of school authorities regarding textbooks used in the classrooms. “This is an epidemic,” said Bill Saxton, of Citizens for National Security, in an interview with New Times Broward-Palm Beach in late 2011. “Our goal is to turn up the heat on the state and school officials.”

Susan Cooper E

sceastman@folioweekly.c

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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