Reading From the Right

By Sean Cavanagh — September 20, 2005 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 12 min read
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Corrected: A photo caption in the print edition of this story should have noted that a representative of textbook publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, not Mr. Frey, wrote the notes on the health-textbook page shown.

Neal Frey reads textbooks for a living, a job he finds singularly fulfilling. He does not own a television, a credit card, or even a wallet, preferring instead to carry his driver’s license in the front pocket of his oxford shirt. He has very few hobbies. He cannot remember the last time he read a book for the fun of it. After sifting through mountains of written material day after day, on subjects from the fossil record to sexually transmitted diseases, by the time he comes home, he’s usually all read out.

"The lone unforgivable sin in this business is not being a detail fanatic," says Neal Frey, sitting in front of a bank of encyclopedias. "The positions we take are not widely popular in the academic community, so we have to be absolutely sure."

Frey reads textbooks differently from the way most people did when they were in school. He combs through them line by line, recording page numbers and making observations on how their contents compare with his own set of written criteria. On a good day, he might make it through 50 pages. His mentor used to tell him it was better to write nothing about textbooks than to make nine strong points and one weak one. He lives by those words today.

For more than two decades, Frey has labored on behalf of Educational Research Analysts, a conservative Christian textbook-reviewing organization in Longview, Texas, founded by the famously outspoken husband-and-wife team of Mel and Norma Gabler. Since the early 1960s, the organization has sought to rid textbooks of factual errors, perceived liberal bias, and what its reviewers otherwise deem inappropriate content, mostly by exhorting publishers and state officials to make the changes they want. When Mr. Gabler died last year at the age of 89, and Mrs. Gabler grew ill, it fell to their friend and protégé, the 61-year-old Frey, to keep the reviews coming.

Under the direction of Frey, who is assisted by his wife, Judy, the textbook shop has steadily evolved from the Gablers’ era. While Mel and Norma issued textbook reviews as near-celebrities, storming public hearings and sitting for interviews with Phil Donahue and “60 Minutes,” Frey, a former college professor, works in near-anonymity, making his points through the faxes and newsletters he sends to subscribers and textbook decisionmakers.

What remains unchanged, though, is the organization’s commitment to conservatism and the discipline of textbook review.

“The lone unforgivable sin in this business is not being a detail fanatic,” Frey explains one day this summer. “The positions we take are not widely popular in the academic community, so we have to be absolutely sure. To my knowledge, nobody ever challenges us on documentation. Nobody ever challenges us on factual errors. I think it’s generally accepted now, if we say it, you may not agree with it, but as a factual matter, it’s not in debate.”

Yet Frey, like the Gablers, manages to kindle all sorts of debate. To his detractors, his stated pursuit of factual errors obscures his larger goal: to strip textbooks of any content that doesn’t suit his deeply conservative worldview. And because Frey works in Texas—a vital market for educational publishers—his modest operation can have an enormous sway over the written materials used in classrooms across the country, his critics point out.

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The World According to Frey

“Texas is the big enchilada,” says Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, in Austin, which has opposed many of the stances taken by both the Gablers and Neal Frey. “In the end, who’s getting hurt here? The kids. They’re not getting textbooks based on facts. They’re getting books based on somebody’s ideology.”

Neal Frey reads textbooks from an office in the back of a strip mall, in a former department store’s administrative space located behind a Mexican grocery and restaurant. The entrance, a metallic double-door with a taped-on sign bearing the organization’s name, sits at the end of a sun-cracked parking lot next to a loading dock. Up a cement staircase, a second door opens to the headquarters of Educational Research Analysts, a cavernous, 9,000-square-foot office subdivided into rooms for supplies and printed materials.

Once the officies of a department store, the premises of Educational Research Analysts in Longview, Texas, are crammed with printed materials, supplies, and more than 12,000 books.

Down the main hallway, Mel Gabler’s former office remains intact, with an exercise bike, family photos, and a sign on the door that says: “Cheap is Beautiful.” Across the hall are entire rooms full of books, shelved floor to ceiling, which include conservative primers like Barry Goldwater’s Where I Stand, and general-interest volumes such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Oak and the Calf. The Freys have inventoried at least 12,000 books, though they acknowledge there could be many more.

Frey’s office, in the rear, is nearly empty except for a desk, which sits on an orange carpet directly in front of a wall of encyclopedias. It’s a Wednesday morning a few days after the Fourth of July, and Frey is at work with a red pen, a white ruler, and three pastel-colored textbooks bearing the names of three giants in the publishing industry: Glencoe, Holt, and Macmillan.

His task over the days ahead is simple: Complete a “rating sheet” listing the strengths and shortcomings of the three 8th grade texts, according to a set of standard review criteria he has designed. All three textbooks were approved last year by the Texas board of education as “conforming,” an imprimatur that allows the state’s 1,037 school districts to buy them with state money. Frey wasn’t able to complete his review of the 8th grade books before the board’s vote last November, so he’s doing one now—as a service to the public, he says, and schools that will choose which of those editions to buy.

The criteria Frey works from say that health books should “humanize” prenatal development, using terms like “developing baby,” not “fetus.” Textbooks should not attempt to legitimize same-sex marriages or adoptions, he says, or normalize homosexuality. They should include sex education illustrations that are age-appropriate, his criteria say. And overall, health textbooks should promote strong character among students, advocating discipline, sound ethics, and deferred gratification, not idleness or noncompetitiveness, Frey believes.

A particular concern for Frey on this morning is that textbooks describe sexual abstinence as an expected behavior, not just a preferred one, and the only true guarantee against disease and pregnancy. By that measure, the Glencoe edition—with at least 20 exemplary passages—tops the others, he says. Yet overall, Macmillan “really shines,” he adds, easily outclassing the other two in its consistent promotion of responsible behavior.

“Most students will rise to the level you set for them,” Frey avers. “Almost all 15-year-olds will be better off following parental values than their own values.”

Despite his solitary vocation, Frey’s dress on almost every workday is formal: Today, he’s wearing a light-blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled tightly above the elbows, gray slacks, and blue-brown tie. About 6 feet tall, he has neatly combed dark hair and wears thick-lensed glasses, which he removes when he leans forward to read. He welcomes questions, even potentially hostile ones, and generally delivers opinions in a voice that increases occasionally in speed, but not in volume. Even his most acerbic jabs at critics (he labels birth-control advocates “the condom lobby” and derides the use of “asexual stealth phrases”) are issued as calmly as if he were reading from a teachers’ manual.

Frey’s favorite reviews by far are in history, a lifelong passion. He grew up in Hillcrest Heights, Md., a suburb of Washington, attending mostly public schools, including Western High School in the capital’s Georgetown neighborhood, which he commuted to every day by streetcar. He has positive memories of the school, which he recalls as having a racially integrated student body and a demanding curriculum—the reason his parents sent him there. His mother raised him and his sister as Baptists; he was “saved” at the age of 9.

His religious faith factored into his choice of Houghton College, a Christian school in upstate New York, where he met his wife. (Judy Frey, now 61, recalls meeting Neal in an English class; he sat near the front, often questioning the abilities of the assigned authors.) They married, and after he went to graduate school and earned a degree in history, the couple eventually settled in California, where he taught history and other subjects at what is now San Diego Christian College.

Judy Frey works alongside her husband at Educational Research Analysts. The couple's adult children also help periodically.

In 1982, Frey says his year-to-year teaching contract was not renewed, and he needed a job. A friend who had heard Mel Gabler speak put Frey in touch with the Texan. After a few phone conversations and discussions of ideology, Gabler hired the younger man, and soon afterward, the Freys and their four children packed up their car and moved to Longview. Over time, Judy Frey, a former elementary school teacher, has taken a larger role in the operation, and the couple’s children have periodically helped out, too.

Mel and Norma Gabler, who were working out of their home then, had already been reviewing textbooks for about two decades when Frey arrived. The Gablers were drawn into activism in 1961, when Mel, an oil-company clerk, opened one of his son’s history textbooks and was appalled by what he saw as its scant mention of the constitutional limits on federal power and the sanctity of state and local rights. As the couple delved into other texts, their anger grew.

In their view, textbooks apologized for communism and espoused secular humanism, moral relativism, and liberalism. Textbooks explained evolution but not criticism of that theory, highlighted Western civilization’s shortcomings but not those of other societies, and encouraged loose morals rather than personal responsibility, they argued.

In one greatly publicized protest, Norma Gabler decried a history book for supposedly devoting too much space to Marilyn Monroe while giving meager attention to George Washington. “Is Texas ready for Marilyn to become the mother of our country?” she quipped at a hearing in the early 1970s.

The Gablers became a fixture at state school board hearings. They sat for countless radio and TV interviews, traveled to protests across the country, and were the subject of a biographical how-to book for like-minded reviewers, Are Textbooks Harming Your Children?

Not everyone was a fan. The liberal organization People for the American Way opened an office in Texas largely to combat the Gablers. Longtime newspaper columnist Molly Ivins described the couple as “fear-mongering, right-wing fruit loops” wreaking “untold damage” on schools. Meanwhile, other interest groups, such as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, combed through books from a conservative standpoint. Organizations such as the Council on Interracial Books for Children lobbied from a liberal perspective.

According to critics of American textbooks, that two-sided pressure plays havoc with publishers, who try to respond to complaints of bias while also attempting to write texts that meet the scattershot academic standards of different states. Pressure groups long for a society that is “completely inoffensive to all sides,” writes the education historian Diane Ravitch in her 2003 book The Language Police.

Those organizations try to exert particular influence in California and Texas, where state officials have great control over what textbooks are allowed in districts. Because of all the money to be made there, publishers tend to write textbooks to meet the demands of those two major markets, rather than the needs of every individual state. Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. education secretary under the first President Bush, and others argue that doing away with the state-adoption process would allow more local control over textbooks and curb the influence of outside groups.

Frey calls such proposals “profoundly wrongheaded.” The current process ensures government accountability, he says. Turning to local control, he adds, would result in textbook battles being fought “eleven-hundred times in every school district around Texas.”

Still, Frey does not dispute his influence in today’s skirmishes. His clout seemed evident last year, when the Texas board of education was deciding whether a number of middle and high school health books were eligible to be bought with state money. The day before the board’s vote, one Republican member, Terri Leo, presented a list of more than 200 proposed changes to the publishers. A majority, she acknowledged in a recent interview, came from Frey.

While most of those suggested revisions were rejected, publishers and board members agreed to a much-publicized proposal that more clearly defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The health books also were approved despite complaints that they offered minimal information on sexuality and contraception. Frey, as is typical, did not testify or attend last year’s hearings. Yet he says that Mel Gabler, before his death, called those health-textbook changes the office’s “single greatest victory” in 43 years.

Leo, who recalls meeting Frey twice, denies that he holds sway over her or other board members. His power comes in being better prepared and versed in textbook subjects than his opponents, she says.

“He’s very meticulous,” Leo says. “He’s a real intellectual. That’s why, by far, his [comments] are really treasured by publishers.”

Frey’s work is also valued by philanthropies, such as the conservative Castle Rock Foundation, which have provided grants to his operation in recent years, records show. More than 80 percent of his organization’s revenue, however, comes from small donations, and its yearly budget usually tops out at roughly $120,000, Frey estimates.

Frey’s salary was recently listed at $40,000, though there are few signs of how he might have spent it. He and his wife rarely vacation. They rent their home of 19 years; they decline to take out a mortgage, citing religious reasons. “The borrower is servant to the lender,” Frey explains, quoting Proverbs. Despite the broiling east Texas heat, they have never had air conditioning at home, deeming it an extravagance. They have never owned a TV set. Frey says the last televised event he watched in its entirety was Dwight Eisenhower’s second presidential inauguration, in 1957. He has a fondness for radio, however, and enjoys listening to Texas Rangers baseball broadcasts.

His only real indulgences, if you could call them that, are three older-model cars he tinkers with. On this sweltering day, Frey rolls down the window of his 1963 Ford F-100 pickup, which he bought for $800 cash, and starts it up with a roar.

He pulls out of the strip mall and starts toward his house, downshifting when the truck churns up a hill, slipping it into neutral as it rolls down again. A few minutes later, he pulls up in front of the tidy three-bedroom house, in a modest neighborhood of oaks and single-story homes.

Inside his garage sits a blue-gray 1966 Plymouth Valiant, purchased 34 years ago, which now has 354,000 miles on it. Frey had the car appraised recently and jokes that receiving that modest estimate was a “humbling experience,” though when he describes its appeal, it is clearly not financial.

“Simplicity. Easy maintenance,” Frey says, as he slides behind the wheel. “Reminds me of my youth, that’s a big part of it. Independence. So few people do this”—collect and restore old cars, he means. And just as important, Frey adds, because of the car’s age, it does not have to be inspected for emissions. “The government doesn’t regulate it,” he says. “I like that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Reading From the Right


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