Textbooks and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Behind textbook controversies are beliefs and values that encompass more than curriculum decisions in classrooms. Schools are community institutions and involve highly emotional issues concerning the upbringing of children. Additionally, financial support—through taxes—for public schools is mandatory, so they have been frequent targets for political machinations of one form or another.

From the beginning of American public education, schools have been buffeted by differing religious, political, and cultural viewpoints. In his plan for tax-supported schools in Virginia, first proposed in 1779, Thomas Jefferson emphasized secular academic subjects and citizenship and eliminated the Christian scriptures and religious doctrine that was commonly taught. Religious teaching and exercises continued unabated in most classrooms across the nation. To make schools at least nondenominational, Horace Mann, the person most responsible for opening free schools in the early 1800’s, recommended that the Bible be read only in opening exercises, and that it be read without comment. An outcry greeted Mann’s proposal. Conservative Christians wanted students to hear interpretations of the Bible, non-Christians objected to prayers directed to Jesus Christ, and Roman Catholics were incensed that the Bible used for readings was the Protestant version. This clash between religious faiths, brought on by a new wave of immigrants from Catholic countries, was further fueled in the late 1800’s by the popular use of the McGuffey Readers, which contained anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-immigrant statements.

The Gablers

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

From the early 1960’s into the 1990’s a married couple in Texas, Mel Gabler and Norma Gabler, exerted considerable pressure on publishers to alter textbooks to fit their Christian Fundamentalist viewpoints. They objected to historical personages depicted as having human faults. They also objected to criticisms of U.S. government actions, such as the internment of the Japanese during World War II, slavery, decisions that led to economic depressions, laws that discriminated against minorities or females, and U.S. involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Gablers also challenged the inclusion in social studies texts of such figures as César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi. The Gablers have strenuously objected to textbooks that ask open-ended questions and encourage independent thinking, instead of imparting factual information only. Such approaches lead students to believe, they have maintained, that there are no right answers or moral absolutes. The Gablers called the 1972 series Man: A Course of Study, developed by Professor Jerome Bruner and funded by the National Science Foundation, the “worst . . . imaginable.” The series’ purpose was to introduce students to a variety of cultures, such as the Netsilik Eskimos, with values and practices quite different from traditional American society.

In contrast to the attacks on books by those on the right, both Frances FitzGerald in America Revised (1979) and James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) criticized history texts for their boring blandness, egregious misinformation, lack of intellectual standards and stimulation, and the manipulation of students into accepting particular ideological dogma.

Science Texts

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

At the heart of textbook censorship in science has been the theory of evolution. From 1900 to 1920 laws prohibiting the teaching of this concept were passed in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. In 1925 Texas governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson mandated that the word be deleted in all textbooks and any educator who taught evolution would be dismissed or prosecuted. In 1927 national attention focused on Dayton, Tennessee, when a young biology teacher, John Scopes, was convicted of flouting the state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution.

Thirty-five years later Susan Epperson defied a statute in Arkansas that forbade any state-supported school or university to teach that humans descended from a lower order of animals. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), ruled that the law violated the religious neutrality requirement of the First Amendment because it proscribed a particular body of knowledge on the basis that it conflicted with a sectarian interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Because of the influence of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) during the 1960’s, evolution received an unprecedented emphasis in textbooks. This, however, was soon reduced or eliminated during the 1970’s as a result of pressure from the Religious Right. Evolution gained again against the Religious Right in the late 1980’s when California refused to purchase science books that did not adequately present the theory of evolution.

Having lost the battle to eliminate evolution from science classes, the Religious Right developed a new concept, “creation science.” Claiming that evolution is unproved and a central tenet of the so-called religion of humanism, creationists maintained that the true scientific explanation of the earth’s origin is in the Book of Genesis and demanded equal time in science classes for teaching creationism. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that a Louisiana law requiring science teachers to teach creationism if they taught evolution was unconstitutional because it put religious dogma into an academic, scientific curriculum. Justice Antonin Scalia argued for the dissent.

Literature Texts

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Literature books were less targeted in schools than social studies or science texts, at least until the 1960’s, for several reasons. First, prior restraint often occurred as teachers, librarians, administrators, and school boards refused to buy or place certain books on reading lists. Also, young adult novels and stories tended to be less realistic, negative, or controversial than works meant for adults. Finally, many texts containing works by William Shakespeare and other classic authors were—and still are—filled with alterations, bowdlerizations, and deletions, particularly regarding sexual matters or religious and political viewpoints.

From the 1960’s into the 1990’s, however, many books that conservative parents and right-wing organizations deem offensive were selected by teachers for required or supplemental reading. In short, teachers, writers, school librarians, and others developed a resistance to prior restraint. According to surveys done by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), leading the list of censored literature books from 1965 to 1985 was J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), followed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Of Mice and Men (1937), an anonymous teenage diary about drug use called Go Ask Alice, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Other books popular among adolescents that have been frequently censored by adults include Lord of the Flies (1954), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Brave New World (1932), Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), A Separate Peace (1959), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). Later additions to the frequently censored list have been Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).


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Other Attacks on Texts

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Religious Right is not the only group to censor books. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, a dramatic shift took place in the censorship wars when new protesters appeared on the scene: the liberals, who before had generally resisted censorship. Many books were charged with being racist and sexist. To counter this, nonwhite faces were added to textbooks, African Americans and women were pictured as professionals rather than slaves and housewives, and the achievements and writings of minorities and women were included, although often tagged on at the ends of chapters. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Council on Interracial Books, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and other organizations denounced books deemed prejudicial and made their own demands for future texts, including nonsexist language. As a result, textbooks were watered down to the extent that they would offend neither a left-wing radical from Berkeley nor a right-wing radical Fundamentalist Christian from Texas; some critics judged such books to be so without anything that might be offensive that they were quite dull.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was removed from classroom reading in numerous school districts, including the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax, Virginia, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was banned in a Texas town; both books were banned because of their...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

James C. Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1976), provides a Religious-Right perspective on the Gablers’ efforts to keep books off Texas’ state- adoption lists and to influence publishers. The Gablers’ own What Are They Teaching Our Children? (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1985), written with James C. Hefley, details their many objections to texts in social studies, literature, science, and health. Niles Eldredge’s The Monkey Business: A Scientist Looks at Creationism (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982) and Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools (New York: Norton, 1982), examine the antievolution controversy. Joan DelFattore’s What Johnny Shouldn’t Read: Textbook Censorship in America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), discusses the people and organizations involved in censorship incidents. The Censors and the Schools, by Jack Nelson and Gene Roberts, Jr. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963), and America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century, by Frances Fitzgerald (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), give historical overviews of school censorship. James Moffett’s Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988) details the Kanawha County, West Virginia, textbook confrontation. Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, published by the National Council of Teachers of English (Urbana, Illinois, 1994), edited by Jean E. Brown, is a collection of essays on censorship by college and public school faculty, with suggestions on how to combat it. James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: New York Press, 1995) is a compelling critique of twelve leading high school history texts that he finds boring, blindly patriotic, and filled with misinformation.