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.
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.
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...
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