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Tribeca Review: Upsetting, Eye-Opening 'The Revisionists' Draws Pivotal Line In The Sand In Regard To Education

by Gabe Toro
April 21, 2012 6:19 PM
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Where to start when discussing something like "The Revisionaries," a film that's really only controversial if you feel the idea to provide an idiot with a pulpit to preach from is a good one? The doc follows the fifteen-person Texas Board Of Education, an organization dedicated to reforming the state's high-school textbooks over the course of a few years, allowing for a host of politically-motivated edits. You see where this is going.

The most magnetic personality in "The Revisionaries" belongs to Don McLeroy, who describes himself as a Young Earth Creationist. Believing "education is too important not to be polticized," he wields a heavy hammer as the leader of the panel, believing that his views are the only views, while he cordially offers up his thoughts on evolution and other scientific theories. When dealing with challenges to his views that the Earth is 6,000 years old, he appeals to his people, demanding "Somebody's gotta stand up to these... 'experts.'" Much of what his constituents believe, which carries over to the arguments occuring in the court, is that they have to be strategic about their comments -- religion must not be proved, but be presented in a way where it is impossible to disprove. When everything is a theory, nothing is a fact, and when more reasonable viewpoints conquer McLeroy's "we walked with the dinosaurs" philosophy, it's considered a "failure of strategy."

Among these strategies is the idea that evolution must be attacked, and brought down to the level of creationism, an acknowledgement that creationists know they have detractors. It goes beyond repeatedly referring to evolution as theory -- the bulk of the Board of Ed's discussions is dedicated to highlighting evolution's "insufficiencies." McLeroy's response to citizens buying radio ad-time to challenge his views is to attend local radio shows, where he counter-challenges with theassertion that some scientific concepts have yet to yield reasonable explanations in the field of science. We don't know when all it comes to science, he and his cronies argue, but we do know all with the word of the Lord.

It becomes even more eye-opening for the layman when McLeroy and his compatriots tackle the social studies textbooks. We're given glimpses of the representatives leafing through pages, deleting, omitting, and adding words to clarify their viewpoints. President Reagan goes from being a President who enacted change to someone who represented the "values of leadership" with merely a few carefully-placed adjectives. Communism is regarded with even harsher language than previously utilized. Most representatives stand by as McLeroy simply re-writes history according to his own opinionated specifications, indeed, there isn't much opposition until he opts for the removal of hip-hop from text books, instead advocating the teaching of country western music. When a black representative presses McLeroy to explain this replacement, he casually suggests students don't need to learn about hip hop, and struggles to answer when asked exactly what his definition of hip-hop might be.

"The Revisionaries" limits its skepticism to small interstitials that illustrate the divide between the religious right and the more enlightened. While we rarely get to see the inner workings of the more liberal minds involved in this operation, the camera is there for several rallies where protestors and speakers make fire-and-brimstone speeches proclaiming the return of Christ, specifically to enlighten the youth through non-secular textbooks. Don't even bring up the separation of church and state: the vote strongly goes against any textbooks teaching the First Amendment. Director Scott Thurman always seems to let the right bit of footage speak for itself in these situations: opposition to the teaching of the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson's placement in the textbook are explained by a representative who prefaces her opinions by saying, "I love Jefferson, I'm a huge fan." The Apostle Of Democracy, reduced to mascot.

"The Revisionaries" isn't going to challenge anyone who needs to be challenged -- it's hypocritical for them to assume there is no flaw in their thought as they question evolution, all under the guise of protecting the youth. In one absolutely perfect snapshot, McLeroy, who had previously questioned why so many scientific theories weren't airtight, is seen teaching kids the basics regarding Noah's Ark, discussing the logistics of getting each specific animal onboard. Once he replies in the affirmative regarding the question of dinosaurs on the ark, it becomes less of an issue about being kind to your neighbors, and more about understanding how little the spoken word can sometimes mean. [A-]

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  • John | May 1, 2012 10:59 AMReply

    I think you are a little ignorant. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, among others. It does not speak to a separation. Maybe you should read the Constitution once in a while.

  • Constitutional Lawyer | May 4, 2012 6:05 PM

    The first amendment actually has two distinct clauses related to religion: 1) the Free Exercise Clause (guaranteeing free exercise of religion) and 2) the Establishment Clause (prohibiting the State from establishing a national religion). In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has found that these clauses must be read together to protect religious liberty. For example, in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, Justice Brennan wrote that "[t]he Free Exercise Clause 'was not to be the full extent of the Amendment's guarantee of freedom from governmental intrusion in matters of faith.'"

    The popular phrase "separation of church and state" comes from Jefferson's Letter to a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson also wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between Church and State." However, before Jefferson, Roger Williams wrote of the “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world.” Here, Williams was speaking of protecting religion from the state, not vice-versa.

    In 1947, in Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court gave Jefferson's words constitutional significance, quoting the famous phrase in its opinion. Here's exactly what the court said:

    "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State.'" 330 U.S. 1, 15-16.

    After this seminal case, Jefferson's words have been read into the First Amendment. Just like all other constitutional issues, you must look to the over 200 years of case-law to truly understanding the meaning of the First Amendment.

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