Education Opinion

Whose Textbooks Are They, Anyway?

By William Jay Jacobs — March 30, 1983 6 min read
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In 399 B.C., an Athenian jury convicted the philosopher Socrates and condemned him to death. His crime: corrupting the minds of the city’s youth. His nagging questions, charged the prosecutor Meletus, had raised doubts among young people about the gods and the laws of Athens. For that, he deserved to die. Spurning the advice of friends that he escape into exile, Socrates drank the poison hemlock prescribed in his sentence. Organized society must survive, he reasoned, even if just men sometimes had to become victims of unjust laws.

Now, 24 centuries after the death of Socrates, the United States of America, through its Supreme Court, still is preoccupied with the issue of whether, or how best, to prevent the minds of young people from becoming “corrupted” in the course of their schooling.

For much of my own career as a teacher and writer of history and biography for young readers, I had not viewed the question of academic freedom as one of compelling urgency. Instead, I worked hardest to combat the persistent image of history as dull--a subject confirming the judgment of Mouse in Wonderland, when, to dry Alice’s enormous tears, he began reading history aloud since it was, he said, the driest thing he knew.

Then, unexpectedly, I was jarred into reality. In 1972, during public hearings in Texas for the statewide adoption of textbooks, critics charged a 5th-grade text I had written with moral crimes so heinous that Socrates himself--that classic corrupter of young minds--would have cringed from my presence. The book, Search for Freedom: America and Its People, supposedly sowed seeds of doubt about American values and patriotism. It set children against their parents and teachers. It encouraged civil disobedience. It honored the “Robin Hood” concept of robbing (read “taxing”) the rich to give to the poor. It committed blasphemy in mentioning the ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the same breath with Jesus, “our Lord and Savior.” It glorified Andy Warhol, “the King of Smut,” by reprinting two of his pictures. Worst of all, while the book referred to George Washington only briefly, it devoted six-and-a-half pages to a biographical sketch of Marilyn Monroe.

“The Sexy Textbook!” and “More MM than GW!” screamed the headlines. United Press International (UPI) carried the story nationwide. The conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey joined in the chorus of derision. In the ensuing months, two of the critics, Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Tex., played on the Marilyn Monroe sketch to build national reputations as textbook “evaluators.” They held the book up to the TV camera on “The Phil Donahue Show” and upbraided it before Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.” I had, they claimed, substituted Marilyn Monroe for Martha Washington as “mother of our country.”

“Marilyn” made for a good laugh. Yet what better contemporary symbol have we of the potential for barrenness in the American dream when, stripped of its inherent idealism, it is reduced to a mindless groping for money and fame? The Marilyn Monroe sketch raised questions for young readers about mass “spectatorism” and the commercial packaging of human vulnerabilities. It illustrated that not every story beginning with “Once upon a time” necessarily will end with the hero (or heroine) living “happily ever after.”

The moral must have proved too subtle, too threatening, or both. At the conclusion of the pubic hearings, the Texas Commissioner of Education removed Search for Freedom from the list of texts approved for use in that state. The book was, in effect, banned in Texas.

Now, a decade after the silencing of the “sexy textbook,” the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling in the Island Trees (N.Y.) school-library suit (Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico), putting at least some curbs on book-banning. Yet even while upholding the right of students to “receive information and ideas,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. (writing for the majority on the Court) drew an unfortunate distinction. He contrasted the school library, and “the regime of voluntary inquiry that there holds sway,” with “the compulsory environment of the classroom.” One can only speculate whether the Court really means that a student--outside the privileged sanctuary of the library--is to be without rights of “inquiry.” If so, we may in the future wish to place signs over classroom doors warning students, as in Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”

Chief Justice Warren Burger, in an ominous dissent, went still further. Shall school boards, he asked bitterly, be required by the Constitution “to justify to teen-age pupils the decision to remove a particular book from a school library?” By logical extension, we should expect before long to see bands of defiant teens, fists clenched above their heads, draping the black flag of Anarchy across the facades of American school buildings.

The Chief Justice--like Socrates’ prosecutor Meletus 2,400 years ago--probably has little to fear. Then, as now, education tends to indoctrinate. Few of us recall our childhood classrooms as places for the stimulation of dissent. The reason, of course, is that communities strive to perpetuate their values, to assure their political survival. Consequently, educational institutions tend to reflect the larger culture: its concerns, its anxieties, and also its strengths.

Textbooks traditionally have been bulwarks of the established order, powerful instruments for the political integration of youth into society. I have seen students and teachers in Cuba, China, India, and the Soviet Union--as well as in the United States--virtually genuflect before the textbook. It is something holy, to be worshipped daily, as ritual.

Whatever textbooks are, they certainly are not objective. Isn’t it high time, therefore, that all parties frankly admit that what constitutes an “acceptable” textbook depends largely on personal opinion and interpretation? And further, that the right to decide which texts are used--and hence to indoctrinate children and prevent them from getting differing ideas--rests ultimately with the political faction in power, on its opinions and values.

In America’s competitive free-market system, not every text can be adopted. Some will fail and go out of print. Clearly, then, the right to be heard is far from absolute. Yet if the textbook-selection process is open and reasonably fair, then the ensuing competition of books and ideas deserves our wholehearted support. For such competition in the marketplace of ideas is the lifeblood of free, unrestricted scholarship--presumably what we are trying to demonstrate to students. It is only when competition breaks down that we have reason to fear. When we cater to the special obsessions of such textbook critics as the Moral Majority, or the feminist lobby, or the racial and ethnic organizations, the rights of all of us are abused. After all, it’s our country, too, not just that of Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Tex.

Unquestionably, parents and other special-interest groups have a right to voice their opinions, to urge their point of view. Given the ground rules of democratic capitalism, tests of strength among contending forces, staged in the political arena, probably are inevitable. Still, we may be able to humanize the conflict. It may be possible to systematize and regularize textbook-adoption procedures, relying increasingly on the judgment of knowledgeable professionals, while still taking into consideration the component of community values. Then, a multiplicity of texts like Search for Freedom, expressing unusual, even “heretical” interpretations of the American experience, would be more likely to compete--to survive or perish--on their merits.

Meanwhile, it’s comforting to know that the issue of book banning continues to generate controversy. It means that at least someone, somewhere, still takes the written word seriously as a means of influencing the minds of young people.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 1983 edition of Education Week as Whose Textbooks Are They, Anyway?


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