Textbook Wars

Curriculum controversies are a staple of state and local politics. The brouhaha in Kansas is merely the latest in a long line of fights. Creationism is at a constant low grade boil that occasionally overflows the pot. Sex education launched a near revolt in Kanawha County in the early 1970s. Go back still further and you’ll find actual riots over which version of the Bible–the Protestant KJV or the Catholic Douay-Rheims–would be required for use in schools. Since the founding of the first public schools, Americans may have spent more time arguing about textbooks and course content than any other single topic.

Here’s an archival image from a 1970s front in the textbook wars.

School Texts

Image Credit: Harold J. Ockenga Papers, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries Library

You’ve got “Un-Americanism,” the catch-all label for attempts at “debunking” or “falsifying American history.” (Replaced in subsequent decades by the dreaded “revisionist” conspiracy.) It is a letter from the American Association of Christian Schools, so “rebellious spirit” and “disrespect for church, religious, the Bible,” make appearances. It seems that approved textbooks should make America look good, the USSR look bad, encourage respect for authority, and promote middle-class respectability.

Some of the categories are just befuddling. What is a “confusion complex,” are there job postings for “confusion complex” designers, and do they create both commercial and residential complexes? I suspect that my blog, if it had existed at the time, would’ve fallen afoul of at least seven of the eleven offenses. Then again, it’d be rather an honor to be found guilty of “excessive free speech.” Dang it, now I’m a “smart-aleck” and guilty of “vulgarity” to boot.

I will only briefly note that curriculum conflicts are an avoidable problem. The more centralized control of a curriculum is, the more likely a school system is to have a fight over its choice of texts. In Kanawha County, for instance, the state board of education mandated that all local schools include sex ed curricula; a local pastor’s wife ran for the school board and rallied locals in opposition.

Today you see the same pattern with state boards setting curriculum in Texas and Kansas. If each school district was given authority to set its own curricula (and, among other things, test, hire, and fire its own staff), a significant amount of the problem would go away as schools more closely reflected the views of their constituent families.

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do you really think that forcing a kid to buy a textbook promoting creationism or sex education in a class or two will really make that much of a difference in whether they have a positive life outcome? Oh, if only I’d read a few chapters about evolution, I wouldn’t have become a bank robber! That ascribes far too much deterministic power to formal education, I think.