by stephen bates
poseidon press, 365 pages, $24
The 1983 protest by a group of parents in Hawkins County, Tennessee, against certain stories and themes in the public school reading series prescribed for their children, and the subsequent litigation referred to as the Mozert case, are recounted in an almost novelistic way in this new book by Stephen Bates. While dramatic, the account may be too detailed for readers who have no special interest in such cases, but two aspects of the book deserve the attention of everyone concerned with the place of religion in American society. One hopes that they would also speak eloquently to all who love liberty and respect the rights of parents.
The first aspect of general significance is a chapter on what is often referred to as “the textbook controversy”—the concern with how textbooks present religion and other central features of American life. Bates draws upon the classic study by New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz ( Censorship: Evidence of Bias in Our Children’s Textbooks, 1986), along with a variety of other studies to show that the plaintiffs in Mozert were not unjustified in believing that textbooks favor every viewpoint except the traditional Christian one. The series used in Hawkins County, for example, discussed witchcraft and encouraged children to write their own incantations “to stimulate imagination and creativity.” One can imagine the outcry, a lawyer for the plaintiffs pointed out, if the same effect had been sought by encouraging children to compose a prayer to Jesus.
The censoring of religious elements in textbooks is of course only one aspect of the general purging of anything related to traditional religion (and especially Christianity) from public schools since the postwar Supreme Court rulings on school prayer and devotional Bible reading. School administrators went much farther than the Court directed, and textbook publishers in turn took care to prevent any reflection of the beliefs and practices of half or more of the American people to creep into their books. Even identifying a character in a story as a born-again Christian, testified the supervising editor of the series to which the Mozert plaintiffs raised their objections, would “raise questions of the separation of church and state.” Of course it would do nothing of the sort, but it is significant that such a thing could be believed.
It is ironic, as Bates points out, that the purging of religion should have occurred at the same time that publishers were rushing to make their textbooks more “inclusive.” “Of role models highlighted for special attention in sidebars in several social studies books, more than half were women and all the men were Hispanic, Indian, or black; not a single white male was included.” In basal readers, a woman is “less likely to be a mother than to be a spy, shepherd, or anthropologist.”
Publishers were responding to intense pressures from groups concerned that they were underrepresented in text materials, and at times it seemed that nothing could satisfy the protesters. When one reading book carefully balanced 146 female characters against 146 male characters, feminists charged that among the animal characters males were too heavily represented. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was condemned “as sexist (the only disobedient character is male), ageist (the crotchety farmer is old), ‘racist by omission’ (all the bunnies are the same color), and materialistic (Peter is hunting for food).” The disabled were unfairly portrayed in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Heidi, Treasure Island, and Richard III. The recent controversy over the “Rainbow Curriculum” in New York City bears witness to the willingness of the education establishment to seek to accommodate variant sexual practices within the schools’ portrayal of the diversity to be valued.
It is easy to mock such excesses of political correctness, but they have profoundly shaped the world that is presented to children in public school classrooms. The one group of concerned parents and citizens not granted a hearing is that which calls for a fair representation of traditional religion. And this relates to the second aspect of Bates’ account that has broader significance.
To the textbook editors whose internal communications were obtained by the plaintiffs through discovery, the concerns of religiously traditional parents did not deserve to be treated as morally equivalent to those of feminists, racial minority groups, and homosexuals. The former were considered “censors” of the kind associated with totalitarian societies, while the latter “seek to improve our educational institutions and textbooks in a positive manner.” Publishers were instructed not to “lose sight of the long-range goals of education in the face of any one group’s self-serving interests, however vocal it may be,” unless, of course, the group was politically acceptable.
This attitude was reflected strongly, as Bates shows, in the media portrayal of the plaintiffs in the Mozert case and thus in the way that most Americans came to understand the issues at stake. The protesting parents were presented as would-be censors — though they were asking only that their own children be allowed to read alternative materials —while school officials were presented as heroic guardians of liberty. The “spin” was the opposite of that given to situations in which, say, black parents protest the treatment of African-American history and culture in public school classrooms.
Perhaps the strangest twist of the whole business was the consensus in much of the media comment that in challenging the judgment of education professionals about what was good for their children, the parents were somehow behaving undemocratically. What could be more in the American tradition than such insistence upon following one’s own conscience even against established authority?
It is the central irony of the debate over multiculturalism in American education that its advocates show little sympathy for the manifestation of culture that is of most enduring importance to groups within American society, namely, their religious beliefs and traditions.
Studies have demonstrated time and again that while other aspects of heritage, language, and culture are shed in the course of two or three generations, religion continues to shape how a hundred million Americans understand the world and order their lives. The banishing of this deep- rooted source of identity and meaning from the curriculum accounts for the lightweight nature of most multicultural education.
The perception of the stakes in the Mozert case, as Bates shows, was distorted by elite prejudice against “fundamentalists” who were acting in ways that, for members of other groups, would have been likely to have gained support in the same circles. The assumption that “fundamentalists,” whatever they might say, are always conniving to force their beliefs on others and create a Christian nation — was more powerful than any inclination to support parents seeking to gain some accommodation for their children from an unresponsive bureaucracy.
The plaintiff parents in the Mozert case were not especially attractive characters, as Bates’ detailed account reveals, and some of their concerns with textbooks were easy to mock, but the issue that they raised will continue to trouble American public schools. As I wrote before the case was decided against the parents, “We have set ourselves an impossible task in seeking to provide a single model of education that is to be at once capable of nurturing character and civic virtue and yet inoffensive to the convictions of any parent. We might congratulate ourselves — as did the attorney for the Hawkins County School Board — on the fact that parents who object can always have recourse to private schools, but this is tantamount to making the exercise of conscience and of parental rights contingent upon the ability to afford a private education” (The Public Interest, Summer 1987).
Bates argues at the conclusion of his account of the case that the lower court judge was correct in calling for the school to accommodate parents with alternative readings. This, though appropriate, would not go far enough; only through real educational freedom can schools stand for something and thus educate confidently and well, with the full support of parents.
The United States is almost unique, among nations with universal schooling, in providing free education only through the monopolistic suppliers we call local school systems. Whatever merits this may have had in a more culturally homogeneous time, it is an infallible formula today for the removal of decision-making about schooling from parents to “experts.” It is difficult to think of any greater threat to the real enjoyment of freedom by parents or to the ability of our schools to educate their children to become free men and women. Among the first successful demands of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe, as Communist regimes fell, was for public support for whatever schools parents might create or choose for their children; strange that we Americans do not value freedom — or schools that are morally coherent and purposeful — so highly.
Charles L. Glenn is Professor of Educational Policy at Boston University.