Textbooks and Censorship

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At Issue

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

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.

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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

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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

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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

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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).

The usual charges have been that the books are obscene, immoral, and blasphemous; they oppose the Bible, Christianity, religion, America, the family, and the free-enterprise system; are unpatriotic and socialistic; and espouse the “religion of secular humanism.”

An irate superintendent ordered school copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five burned in Drake, North Dakota; elsewhere teachers were fired for teaching Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942). In 1987 sixty-four commonly used books were removed by the school superintendent in Bay County, Florida. Challenged by teachers, students, and parents, the superintendent reinstated most titles, but eleven English teachers resigned and the school was no longer listed by NCTE as a Center of Excellence.

In 1974 an eruption over new textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, turned violent. Strikes and pickets disrupted the community, lives were threatened, and schools and buses firebombed as protesters, urged on by local Fundamentalist preachers and the Gablers in Texas, demanded that the godless textbooks be removed from schools. According to James Moffett, in Storm in the Mountains (1988), although many of the books remained in the schools by court order, teachers were afraid to teach from them, publishers reacted to the uproar by publishing extremely cautious texts, and school districts across the country selected only books least likely to offend anyone.

Almost ten years later, a protest by eleven Fundamentalist families in Churchill, Tennessee, over a basic reading series began in 1983 and culminated in the 1987 Supreme Court decision Mozert v. Hawkins County. Objected to were such selections as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), King Arthur stories, “Cinderella,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and stories by Hans Christian Andersen. The case pitted two national organizations against each other: People for the American Way defended the school district and Concerned Women for America supported the parents, who charged that the books advocated witchcraft, Satanism, pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, and one-world government, all of which offended their religious beliefs. In the opinion of the Sixth Circuit court, however, these books were not antireligious but taught a tolerance for divergent views, essential to democracy, and ruled for the books’ continued use.

In an earlier case involving eleven library books, the U.S. Supreme Court said that school boards may not remove books because they dislike the ideas therein. In a school newspaper case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Court granted administrators the right to make professional judgments about curriculum matters. With this as its basis, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1989 ruled in favor of board members who censured, because of vulgar language and sexual explicitness, a previously selected textbook that included Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” Though expressing doubt that high school students would be harmed by reading such masterpieces of Western literature, the judges decreed that boards have the right to select whatever materials they deem appropriate.

Challenged works from 1991 to 1994 included a book intended for children about a young boy’s positive relationship with a homosexual father, and the literature-based elementary series called Impressions, which includes selections from such writers as C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne, Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Critics from the Religious Right stated that stories about Halloween and ghosts, for instance, are satanic and promote the “religion of witchcraft,” and drawings of rainbows inject mystical, New Age psychology into the classroom, which is dangerous to children’s minds and souls.

Other Attacks on Texts

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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 use of racial slurs. Stepmothers and practicing witches objected to the reading of fairy tales that branded them as wicked, nutritionists decried stories containing junk food, and a Dr. Seuss book in which a greedy family devastates a make-believe forest was banned for its supposed attack on the logging industry.

A leading critic of public schools, Phyllis Schlafly, and her organization, the Eagle Forum, have maligned textbooks on sex, AIDS, health, and drug education, maintaining that such topics should be handled only by parents. They have also fought the use of psychology books that promote self-esteem and decision-making activities and the use of affirmations, visualizations, and cooperation, which they view as self-hypnosis and mind control.

Challenges to textbooks have varied in their focus over the years, but the critics’ motivation and behavior remains constant: Individuals or groups vigorously and sometimes violently demand that their beliefs and values be imposed on all children. As Jack Nelson and Gene Roberts, Jr., state in their 1963 study of textbook censorship, The Censors and the Schools: “Since the early days of the Cold War, textbook crises have come in an almost unbroken stream, each controversy providing fuel for another. . . . The charges are essentially the same: the texts are blamed for what a censor dislikes about the world in which he lives.”


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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.

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