From educational Horizons, Summer 1992

Textbooks and True Believers
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

I began my career as an educator teaching geography in a small town junior high school. As a neophyte, I was heavily dependent on the textbook. The District's relentless campaign to keep texts covered and unmarked had kept the 12 year old texts I inherited remarkably well-preserved. But they were out of date, boring, and pedagogically maladroit.

After my students and I suffered with these texts for a year the principal reluctantly agreed to order new ones. Even though I was the only geography teacher, I had little say about which text he ordered. (District officials did not consider such empowerment appropriate for teachers.) Textbook decisions were left to the principal, who, not so incidentally, made them very privately.

I was puzzled and angered by my exclusion from this process. Earlier when I worked as a barber in my father's shop, I had carte blanche so far as tools were concerned. My Dad considered it axiomatic that a craftsman had a right to choose the tools of his trade if he was to be held responsible for his work.

I found myself speculating what criteria the Principal used to make this decision that affected me so directly He played this hand so close to his chest that I could only guess. Clearly, he did not make his choice on pedagogical grounds, for he had no clue about what geography even entailed, much less how to teach it. (He refused to relinquish his notion that the study of geography was the memorization of place names.) In fact, he was so clueless about the discipline and so unconcerned with pedagogy that I simply could not imagine what textbook selection criteria he was using. The only possibility I could come with was some sort of primitive cost-consciousness and a possible touch of whimsy.

He eventually placed the order; but then he evaded telling me which text he had selected. When the summer vacation arrived and it was time to start planning for next school year, I still could only wonder. Teacher lore had it that three days before school began the new selection would appear, piled neatly next to my classroom door. Feeling frustrated and impotent, I waited until that time then implored our all-powerful janitor to let me into the school building. " I donno," he said with hostility, "I just buffed the floor." Eventually, after several warnings about scuff marks, he relented and he permitted me entrance. There they were, just as predicted, orderly piles of brand new textbooks waiting in the unnatural semi-darkness beside my classroom door. But wait, there was a woman sitting on the floor next to them! Who was she and what was she doing? I stole closer. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I made out a familiar community activist. Her power base was a Protestant church in our community devoted to Christian-Americanism. She was going through my new texts!

She was usually in a state of near hysteria and very confrontational, so I waited until she moved her inspection around the corner to someone else's pile of books. Only then did I look at my new texts. The principal had chosen the very one I had dreaded and advised against. Unimaginative, pedantic, maladroit, it reduced an inherently interesting subject to a soporific.

Later I discovered that the Principal had rejected my choice of text because his inspection had revealed a photo of a Balinese village in which the females in the background were topless. Although the photo was small and the exposed breasts barely visible, that was sufficient. The text was out!

I eventually pieced together the Christian-American inspector's presence and the principal's criteria for textbook selection. A lifelong resident of the community, he was acutely aware that local civic dialogue was dominated by a fundamentalist oriented radio station that combined right-wing religion with jingoistic flag-waving. These extremists were a decided minority, even in this very conservative town, but they set his agenda. The nature of school politics, occurring as it does at a very local level, permitted these true believers to wield inordinate influence -- particularly when they were so very willing to exceed the norms of common decency and the values of democracy. In a democracy, school officials must always consider citizen reaction to textbook choices. Sadly, however, irresponsible minorities exercise far too great an influence.

Nowhere is our lack of societal consensus more obvious than in selecting textbooks. The remarkably heterogeneous nature of American society, growing even more mingled by the moment, makes it very difficult to get any agreement whatsoever. Consider the example of states like California or Texas which maintain a list of approved textbooks. When they conduct public hearings a farrago of fundamentalists, feminists, hyphenated Europeans, New Agers, native Americans, Aleuts, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, Hispanics Latinos, Chicanos, pacifists, civil libertarians, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, Asian-Americans, environmentalists, animal rights activists, Muslims, even vegetarians (not to be confused with ovo-lacto vegetarians) lament bias and register non-negotiable demands for more favorable depiction.

Textbooks are often neutered in this way. There are so many competing demands that publishers end up with sterility. So be it. Textbooks debates, even textbook sterilization, are an unavoidable part of the rough and tumble of life in a heterogeneous democratic society. The alternative is domination. Verbally duking it out over textbooks, or the entire school curriculum for that matter, is a very American process. This is not my concern. It is the elements who short-circuit this diaglogue by un-democratic tactics and by their absolute refusal to even consider that those who oppose them are operating in subjective good will. These true-believers never concede that their opponents might be doing what they at least think to be right. Those who desagree with them are always immoral, perverted, licentious, atheistic -- perhaps even traitors, agents of Satan, pornographers or child molesters.

Because their cause is so urgent, so patriotically holy, these true believers commonly assume that the end justifies any means. That is why their textbook campaigns feature character assassination, outright lies and non-negotiable demands. Such tactics destroy communication and make democracy impossible. Colloquy becomes confrontation when the compromises necessary in choosing a text are transformed into the politics of the end-time. In this realm everyone must reveal their "true allegiance" by choosing between God and Satan, America and treason.

This is how anonymous hate mail, terroristic phone calls, unsigned and untruthful pamphlets, acts of vandalism, even death threats become standard features of true-believer textbook campaigns -- particularly at the local level. The worst of these are often the product of dangerously demented people who sometimes act on their threats.

The concern here is NOT with legitimate expressions of difference within the democratic dialogue. It is with those who enter this process with a very real intent to subvert it. To maintain an exchange -- whether it be about texts, schooling or the meaning of life -- truth and values must be dealt with in a tentative and tolerant fashion. Reason must not be subordinated to any group's ultimate truth. Opposing points of view must not be ignored, surpressed or subverted.

Granting any religio-political view a special exemption from these obligations is not only ruinous to public schooling; it places the entire democratic process in danger. Our democracy has never required the celebration of common ends; but it does require respect for common means such as compromise, tolerance and civility.