Columns » John Brummett

The world according to Arkansas

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A bill bandied about at the state Legislature stems from the premise that what’s good enough for the state Constitution is good enough for the textbooks our state’s children read. Jerry Cox, a religious conservative spokesman, pretty much put it just that way the other day. He pointed out that three-fourths of the state’s voters chose on Nov. 2 to pass a constitutional amendment declaring that marriage can exist in Arkansas only between one man and one woman. He testified to the House Education Committee that he was certain the people would want similar wording in our school books. This bill says that our school books may not refer to marriage in any other way than the requisite coupling of one set of body parts with a different set of body parts. It got approved by the committee only to get bogged down on the House floor a few days later when Rep. Jodie Mahony of El Dorado raised concerns about the fiscal impact of having to get the textbook companies to write our kids their own special books. Apparently it would not be sufficient to black out certain passages or hand-write footnotes saying, “These facts do not pertain in Arkansas, where children should disregard them.” The lead sponsor of the bill is a freshman Republican from Marshall named Roy Ragland, a pastor. He may know his Bible and he may be fairly astute about the political winds up in the hills. But he’s no match on legislative maneuvering for Mahony, the wily veteran who told the House that nobody seemed to know what if anything the textbooks said about marriage and that it might be a good idea to find out. You can’t rely on merit to slow down a bad bill. But you can raise the specter of unexpected costs. That financial worry -- not Rep. Joyce Elliott’s near-eloquent defense of academic integrity -- got the bill sent back to the Education Committee for more work. Doubting that’s the last we’ll hear of the measure, I am compelled to assert that its premise is a backwoods, know-nothing kind of thing. Academic pursuits are about learning what lies beyond one’s province -- the nation, the world, even the universe. There are a lot of people out there, and they have some peculiar ideas. But the idea of this bill is the precise opposite. It’s that our children must not be exposed in our schools to any books suggesting differences beyond the borders of the state, at least when it comes to a matter on which their parents have spoken in the state constitution. In other words: All the children of Arkansas need to know about the world is what we say in Arkansas. By that reckoning our textbooks need to teach that the Razorbacks are national champions every year. That classical music is that of George Jones, which, I’ll admit, is not a notion wholly without currency. That guns don’t kill people. That mass transit is hauling a yapping hound in a pickup bed. That good nutrition is soda pop and a candy bar. From 1956 to 1990, we in Arkansas said in our state constitution, thanks to a vote of the people approving an amendment, that our schools had to be racially segregated. By this premise, school kids in Arkansas should not have been exposed to any texts over those 34 years referring to racially integrated schools elsewhere, much less to a brave civil rights struggle to provide integrated schools. Actually, if all our kids need to know is our state constitution, maybe we should save money on textbooks altogether and simply hand out copies of that 1874 monstrosity with its nearly hundred amendments. None of the grownups can figure out what Amendment 59 means. Maybe the kids can.

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