Many people on the pro-textbook side were not strident ideologues; they just wanted the controversy to go away. They argued the real losers in the process were students, who were distracted by the debate and in some cases kept out of school. Those who did go to class had to walk through picket lines. The Kanawha County Schoolmaster's Club—which supported the new textbooks—released this statement: "The current climate for the professional approach to the task of education is poor. Teachers are afraid to use materials. . . . They are afraid for their safety, peace of mind and even their jobs. Effective education is at a minimum in Kanawha County."
The decision to adopt new textbooks for Kanawha County in 1974 was not a sudden reversal of policy. For several years, the county had been introducing what conservatives considered books and ideas that were radical. But other than the election of social conservative Alice Moore to the school board in 1970, there had been little public reaction to this shift.
By the 1970s, education in America was moving away from the days of McGuffey's Reader and the three R's: readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic. The shifting education paradigm dated back to the early 20th century works of philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, who believed schools should place less emphasis on delivering facts and more emphasis on students' experiences. Dewey's theories on experiential education helped pave the way for project-based learning, problem solving, and classroom teamwork.
Dewey's ideas about experiential learning shifted the emphasis from one set of textbooks, the McGuffey Readers, into the hands of teachers. This shift allowed school administrators and classroom teachers to craft lessons more specifically for different types of learners, and to pull in a variety of texts and materials to design curriculum.
Throughout the textbook controversy in West Virginia, the Kanawha County Association of Classroom Teachers remained steadfast in its support of the new books. Many teachers took the events personally. A language arts coordinator said several years later, "It did irreparable damage. The teachers were afraid to teach anything."
In the early 1970s, the nation was bitterly divided over a variety of issues—the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, race relations, women's rights, the role of religion in American society. Many textbook supporters felt that the attacks on the new textbooks were attacks against Americans who leaned to the left politically, not to mention thinly veiled forms of racism. True or not, these charges seemed to be partially vindicated when the Ku Klux Klan arrived on the scene to support the textbook protesters.
With the Vietnam War nearing an end, America's role in that conflict was very much an open wound among many on the left and right. One of the new textbooks addressed the My Lai massacre in which American soldiers killed innocent Vietnamese civilians. The book included interviews with some of the incident's participants. An anti-textbook reviewer felt this type of information was "not necessary for education." Another wrote, "I question why this type of literature is important for students unless it is to make them feel guilt and shame."
The writings of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X were a particular target of the protesters. The textbook protesters thought Cleaver's and Malcolm X's words could spark revolt in Kanawha County, despite the region's relatively small African American population. And they objected to the way both authors used what was commonly referred to as "ghetto speak."
Textbook supporters viewed the issue differently. They believed these works filled an important void in what was mostly an all-white curriculum. And they thought discussing controversial issues openly was the only way to heal the nation's deep divisions. The West Virginia Council of Churches, which supported the new textbooks, made this argument in June of 1974: "We know of no way to stimulate the growth of our youth if we insulate them from the real issues. We feel this program will help our students to think intelligently about their lives and our society."
A central debate in the textbook controversy was the place of religion in education. "Separation of church and state" was a key conviction of the textbook supporters; on the other side, the anti-textbook forces were led by a group of evangelical preachers from rural parts of the county. The preachers called the new textbooks "anti-Christian" and said religion was being replaced in the classroom by another belief system—secular humanism. At one of the anti-textbook rallies, one protestor held up a sign that said: "I have a Bible. I don't need those dirty textbooks!"
Yet many Christians in urban areas were for the textbooks. The most public voice of the pro-textbook side was a minister, the Rev. Jim Lewis of St. John's Episcopal Church in Charleston, West Virginia. Lewis challenged the evangelical preachers' notions of God and education. "Steeped in the belief that there is only one way to salvation, these Christians also maintain that there is only one way to education," Lewis said. "To them, education is not a process of drawing a student out, but of pouring facts in."
Lewis felt the conservative Christian reaction to the textbooks stemmed from anxiety about social and political changes sweeping society in the early 1970s. "The anti-textbook people of Kanawha County are confused and angry about everything from marijuana to Watergate," he said. "Feeling helpless and left out, they are looking for a scapegoat. . . . In this religious war, spiced with overtones of race and class, the books are an accessible target."
Textbook supporters pointed to a number of contradictions between the actions and views of the conservative Christian protesters. The violence—although inflicted by a small group of people and against both sides—caused some people to question the motivations of the protesters, who professed to honor God. A public statement by the Rev. Charles Quigley, a leader of the anti-textbook cause, became a rallying point for the pro-textbook side. Quigley said, "I am asking Christian people to pray that God will kill the giants [the three board members who supported the books] who have mocked and made fun of dumb fundamentalists."
Quigley's comments were condemned by some on the anti-textbook side, but the damage had been done. His words, coupled with the increasing level of violence, allowed textbook supporters to underscore the apparent contradiction between the protesters' religious beliefs and actions. As one high school student noted, "They're shooting people because they don't want people to see violence in books."
For many textbook supporters, the main issue was defeating what they saw as censorship. They did not want books to be banned in their schools. Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Kenneth Underwood compared the attempt to keep the textbooks out of classrooms to book burning by the Nazis. He said that presenting students with only positive information about the world would violate "our responsibility as educators by letting students leave school with a distorted—perhaps unhealthy—view of the world as it exists."
Textbook supporters pointed out that most of the textbook protesters wanted all of the newly adopted textbooks removed. But many of the books were in fact basic learning texts, such as a standard handwriting book, and classics like Plato's Republic, Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, and The Good Earth, written by West Virginia native Pearl Buck.
Another dynamic in the textbook debate had to do with beliefs about the purpose of education itself. Textbook supporters believed one of the primary goals of school is to help each generation be more knowledgeable than the previous one. But the protestors thought schools should teach only subjects and themes that parents approve. In their eyes, children should learn generally the same information and hold the same beliefs as their parents.
It probably would have been impossible for Kanawha County to adopt a set of books that no one would object to. And to find such a set of books should not be the goal, according to a report put out by the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher's union.
"Spokespersons for the educational and religious fundamentalists of Kanawha County have proposed that public education shall be a neutral zone, value-free and, therefore, incapable of giving offense to any cultural, racial, ethnic or religious group. Such a form of education never was, and never can be. There is no textbook in any area of literature—including the all—white Dick and Jane primer or the McGuffey's Readers-to which some individuals and groups might not take offense. Nor would it be possible for neutral or value-free education to be realized within the guidelines that the anti-textbook leaders have proposed and the Board of Education has approved for future textbook adoptions in the school system."
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