A frequent target of the conservative movement was John Dewey and his philosophy of experiential education. In the eyes of conservatives, Dewey's theories had moved schools away from teaching basic knowledge and toward a more open system that encourages students to question authority, challenge existing thought, and address problems involving situational ethics—which suggests that moral principles are relative rather than absolute.
The textbook protesters feared this approach to education could encourage students to rebel against what they considered the pillars of American society, including the U.S. government, Christianity, and the home.
During the controversy, many media reports depicted educators as standing united in support of the textbooks. In reality, some teachers vehemently opposed the books. More than one-quarter of classroom teachers who responded to a poll said they were against the books.
School board member Alice Moore's initial objections to the books concerned what she called their anti-American views and the fact that some of them were written in vernacular and used slang. As she noted consistently during the controversy, these were language arts textbooks, and, as such, she believed their primary function should be to teach proper English. She and other protesters felt many of the books—especially those that used what they called "urban dialect"—failed to accomplish this most basic task of an English book.
Moore believed her role on the school board was to represent parents—not schools, administrators, or teachers. As such, she challenged the Dewey-inspired concept that schools should encourage students to explore and share their feelings through open-ended questions. She believed this approach transformed teachers from educators into psychologists, and she questioned whether teachers should challenge the belief systems of parents.
"I don't see how the public school system can be used to take children and cause them to doubt and question ideas their parents have tried to instill in them," Moore said. "Parents believe their children should not be asked what they think or how they should behave," said Moore. "They should be told what to think and how to behave."
In the early 1970s, many people believed that introducing more diverse ideas about politics, religion and culture was central to overcoming racism and healing the national conflicts of the time. Conservatives, however, believed that pursuing this kind of diverse thinking was the cause of many of the nation's wounds.
Two influential conservative textbook reviewers, Mel and Norma Gabler of Texas, espoused this position.
"Textbooks today major in the defects and faults of our government," Norma Gabler argued. "Too often they decline, or refuse to point out, the successes and achievements of our system. [They have] made our youth think the American system has failed. It must be replaced. And we parents wonder why some young people are dedicated to the destruction of our American way of life. Each generation has the responsibility to pass their heritage to the succeeding generation."
Another faction of the anti-textbook movement called itself the Business and Professional People's Alliance for Better Textbooks. It was formed by businessman Elmer Fike, who disagreed with the more radical protesters. He also denounced the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan. He viewed his Alliance as an outlet for "parents opposed to violence and demonstrations."
Fike objected primarily to the books' attacks on capitalism. A frequent critic of the federal government's regulations on his chemical company, Fike later recalled, "Nobody criticizes the government more than I do, but the textbooks weren't criticizing the government from the standpoint of the oppression and the excessive regulation. They were criticizing the free enterprise system."
In the eyes of Fike, the Gablers, and many other conservatives, the fight was not about whether students should be allowed to read Allen Ginsberg's poetry. They believed this was a fight for the continued existence of the country they loved.
Many of the textbook supporters believed that opposition to the new textbooks was just a thinly veiled form of racism. The protesters, on the other hand, asserted that charges of racism went both ways. They believed that the philosophies of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X were a reverse form of racism against white people.
In Kanawha County in 1974, a large majority of people identified themselves as Christian, and they questioned why "non-Christian thoughts" should be allowed in schools that represented overwhelmingly Christian constituents. In announcing its opposition to the textbooks, the Kanawha County PTA released a statement that said: "Many of the books are literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination. Too, these books are woefully lacking in morally uplifting ideas. Many of the statements flout law and order and respect for authority."
The anti-textbook cause was led by a group of evangelical Christian ministers who thought they had been excluded from the selection process. They believed taking to the streets was their only option.
"We are very skeptical of what people want to do with us or to us, especially those that are in authority," said one anti-textbook leader, the Rev. Marvin Horan. "We just don't feel that we can jeopardize any more of our integrity to the likes of this. So we have decided to come together and stand together until the books are removed."
Asked about this stance years later, another one of the anti-textbook leaders, the Rev. Ezra Graley, defended the protesters' public acts of defiance. "A lot of people say that it says that in the Bible, 'Obey the laws of your land.' But I never found that in the Bible. . . . And I think that we are to obey laws as long as them laws don't conflict with our worship of God or try to do away with our God."
The textbook controversy in West Virginia was a catalyst in the private school movement nationally. Conservative Christians in particular began pulling their children from public schools and placing them in church-run schools, or educating them at home. In Kanawha County, several of the anti-textbook leaders opened schools in their churches and houses. School board member Alice Moore observed that private schools might be the only practical outlet for conservative Christians. "If books like these are going into the schools and we can't keep our children out," Moore said, "we have to do something else."
Textbook selection, by its nature, is a form of censorship since more books are excluded than chosen. The protesters in Kanawha County said the selection process discriminated against them since their views about education were not represented on the textbook selection committee. They charged that the committee pushed liberal books while excluding the views of a major section of society—conservatives.
The protesters also felt that educators were intellectually biased against parents. They challenged the concept that professional educators understood better than parents what children needed to learn. As taxpayers, they felt they should have input into what school boards acquire for their children to read. In their defense, they argued that parents who supported the controversial books still had the option of buying those books for their children to read at home. They just didn't want the books in the classroom.
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