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Nothing New Under the Wingnut Sun: 'Textbook Wars' | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Nothing New Under the Wingnut Sun: 'Textbook Wars'


Toni Morrison’s book Beloved recently sparked a curriculum controversy in Virgina. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens.)

Last week The Washington Post reported on a school board vote in Fairfax County, Virginia, over whether to consider removing a book from the curriculum. A mother named Laura Murphy told of how her son encountered Beloved, by Toni Morrison, in his senior high school English class. “It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” It was only one mother complaining, but that was enough: Soon, a vote was slated to consider whether to review the book’s inclusion in the curriculum. Complaints were fielded about plots points involving bestiality and gang rape—and the novel’s dramatic apex, when the escaped slave murders her 2-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be recaptured. Uncomfortable, yes, but the director of the American Library Association said discomfort was the whole point: “It’s a painful part of the African-American history in parts of this country. A lot of parents understandable want to protect their children from that…. However, we strongly advise people to read the book as a whole before they make their judgment.” The English department at the boy’s school chimed in with an eloquent public letter (“reading and studying books that expose us, imaginatively and safely, to that trouble steels our souls to pull us through out own hard time and leads us to a greater empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings”). The mom, meanwhile, assured the world she was “not some crazy book burner,” just someone concerned that “new policies be adopted to give parents more control over what their children read in the classrooms.”

It was all so very familiar to me, given the research I’ve been doing on conservatism in the 1970s, when these controversies were a constant. They unspooled themselves again and again into the 1980s and ‚90s, and, obviously, beyond. Sometimes I really do feel like actors in history—hell, why else do we call them “actors”?—read their lines from a script.

The classic 1970s textbook fight unfolded in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974. It was long, intense, riveting, and violent, and I won’t summarize it here (listen to this outstanding West Virginia Public Radio special to learn more) other than to note some common, structuring tropes.

There is the lone mother innocently going about her business, never dreaming her children’s innocence might be being despoiled by education bureaucrats, until a single, shocking discovery forces the scales from her eyes. In Kanawha the protagonist was one Alice Moore, who a couple of years after arriving in town reported herself startled to discover that the district’s comprehensive sexual education course developed with the help of a grant from the US Office of Education “wasn’t just a sexual education course. It dealt with every aspect of a child’s life…how to think, how to feel, and to act…their relationship with their parents.” The supposedly ordinary housewife transformed herself into a fierce, formidable political advocate (in the Post this week that trope was suggested by photographs that depict Laura Murphy looking steely, intense, concerned—and pretty). She ran for school board (slogan: “Put a mother on the school board”), which was how she discovered a suite of language arts textbooks being fast-tracked for approval by her liberal colleagues to introduce “multi-ethnic, multicultural balance” into the curriculum included outrages like Eldridge Cleaver celebrating the rape of white women in Soul on Ice, and texts encouraging, nay demanding, thatchildren question the revealed religion they learned at their parents knee—“compelling their children, by law, to be in that classroom, and then undermining everything they believe in…. I’m talking about ignoring Christianity, I’m talking about attacking Christianity.”

In Kanawha the fight was eventually pursued by fundamentalist preachers who dynamited the school board building. Nothing like that these days in bucolic Fairfax County, Virginia; these fights have become far too domestic and routinized for that. (This fight, from exactly a year ago in Michigan over the same book, seems to have more dangerously approached Kanawha-style furies.) The reason I raise Kanawha is to help flush out the common arguments. Giving “parents more control over what their children read in the classrooms”—populism—was always the bottom-line one.

Another is the core claim for what makes textbooks unacceptable: that they are disturbing. The Texas organizers who guided Alice Moore’s local work (though she dishonestly claimed her movement to be spontaneously local), Mel and Norma Gabler (who insisted on being called the “Mel Gablers”), advised her what to look out not just for books that derided religion (that was a given), but one with a “morbid,” “negative,” or “depressing” tone. For instance, the Gablers flagged Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” for its “gruesome, murderous, bizarre content.” In this, they tapped a deep American discomfort with unpleasantness as such. (Remember young Mr. Murphy, the high school senior, on Beloved: “It was disgusting and gross.”)

You saw that all the time in textbook war stories in the 1970s. In Richlands, Virginia, a hundred miles to Kanawha’s south, the target was John Steinbeck’s “pornographic, filthy and dirty” The Grapes of Wrath. In the upscale bedroom community of Ridgefield, Connecticut, it was Mike Royko’s lacerating biography of Richard J. Daley, Boss, because it “portrays politics in an un-American way and we don’t want our kids to know about such things as corrupt politics.” Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s satire on the firebombing of Dresden, a particular Gabler bête noire, was being kicked out all over the place. In a North Dakota town it was publicly incinerated. The English teacher who had assigned it was thrown in jail.

It’s important to note, though, that there’s discomfort, and then there’s discomfort. It is surely no coincidence that the “disgusting” books that seem to most raise conservatives’ hackles usually involve plots that involve the powerless challenging the powerful. The Bible, after all, is at points rather disgusting and unpleasant, too.

Eighties movie buffs will remember the scene in Footloose (1984). A parent approaches the right-wing minister played by Jon Lithgow: “Reverend, we have a little problem. I heard the English teacher is planning to teach that book.

Slaughterhouse Five. Isn’t that an awful name?”

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Kevin Bacon, playing the out-of-town cosmopolitan kid who liberates the town from reactionary ways, taken aback, assures them it’s “a classic”—another familiar trope in these scripts: the smarter-than-thou sanctimony of the liberals. A father says, “Maybe in another town it’s a classic.” A mother insists, “Tom Sawyer is a classic!” (A clever little fillip, for as the screenwriter was surely getting at, Tom Sawyer’s sequel,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with its unflinching portrayal of racial wickedness and use of the “N” word—better to shelter kids from such unpleasantness, the logic went—has been a familiar a banning target, too, including, the Post reported last week, in Fairfax County.)

The mocking of the stupid philistines by the Kevin Bacon character, whom the audience is meant to identify with, against parents who wants to ban a book without even reading it, is both understandable and problematic. It feels really good to lord one’s intellectual superiority and sophistication over another. It’s problematic to pass judgeent on a book you haven’t read. But in these fights intellectual arrogance might also be a temptation to be avoided. I wrote this in Nixonland about the 1960s, but it also applies to the 1970s—and our own time as well: “liberals get in the biggest political trouble…when they presume a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then they are the most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues.”

The fact of the matter is that curricula are just about by definition top-down, bureaucratic things. This is why the “freedom to read” rhetoric associated with an admirable movement like the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week disturbs me sometimes; kids in school really aren’t free to read, are they? They follow curricula. And as such, inevitably there will sometimes be pressure, from the bottom up, from parents offended by elements of a curriculum. This is a perennial tension of public education in an ideologically diverse society that can never go away.

It seems to have been handled well in Fairfax. School board members decided not to make any decisions before actually reading the book. The responses divided among those familiar lines I sketched above. Conservative discomfort: “Board member Elizabeth Schulz (Springfield) said parts of the book made her so uncomfortable that she skipped over them.” She voted to consider the disgruntled parent’s challenge: “‘That graphic, violent, disturbing sexual material,” she said, “doesn’t have to be in the classroom.’ ”

Another board member, Ryan McElveen, perfectly encapsulated the liberal pole in these disputes, a contradictory double-headed argument that taking a book out of a curriculum is censorship (“Personally, I would never seek to ban a book”), and that we should surrender to bureaucratic expertise (“I trust our educators to use sound judgment for determining what’s appropriate in the classroom.”)

In the end, the “liberal” side prevailed, the sixteen-member board voting six-to-two (with eight members who apparently hadn’t the time to pore through the tome abstaining from the vote) not to review Laura Murphy’s challenge. Pronouncing herself “disappointed but not surprised,” she promised an appeal to the Virginia Board of Education. The Post doesn’t seem to have investigated further, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Laura Murphy is at least by now working concert with conservative organizations; groups like the Heritage Foundation (which in 1974, in the second year of its existence, aggressively descended on Kanawha as an organizing opportunity) have long made recruiting the disgruntled as their figureheads into an art. I predict a school board run in her future, but only tentatively. Even more tentatively, I can conceive textbooks fights re-inflating to 1970s size.

But what I can say with absolute confidence is that they won’t go way. The questions these fights raise cut to the heart of the meaning of liberal arts education: it is, well and truly, liberal—inviting students to think and question, to blow apart settled ways of looking at the world, and, yes, force them into mental worlds that disturb. And as long as there are conservatives, that cannot but be a controversial proposition.

Rick Perlstein writes about the memorial for Internet activist Aaron Swartz, which was at times bizarre, at times touching.

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