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.