07 October, 2009

What The Textbook Wars Forum Made Clear

“It started off about one thing and ended up about everything”. That’s how Calvin Skaggs, documentary maker and producer of "With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America", summed up the 1974 Kanawha County textbook controversy that others have called the “opening salvo” in the culture wars.

Skaggs offered this summary at last night’s Kanawha Valley Historical and Preservation Society Forum "The Great Textbook War".

Throughout the evening and almost as if to validate and prove the accuracy of Skaggs’ observation, “anti-textbook” conservatives cited the “filthy” textbooks as the cause of such societal ills as out-of-wedlock pregnancies, violence in schools and sexual misconduct of schoolteachers with their students. The textbook controversy started off as one thing and ended up about everything.

Though I had graduated from St. Albans High School a year earlier, I lived through the “textbook wars” as did the entire Kanawha Valley and eventually the nation so I remember well how a controversy that started as objections to newly adopted textbooks ended up as a launching pad for the congressional career of “B1 Bob” Dornan, a cause celeb for the KKK. Everybody who lived in the Kanawha Valley at that time remembers that Rev Marvin Horan went to prison on charges related to the bombing of schools. What started off as objections to some non-standard English and some quotations from controversial writers ended up about politics and race and bombs and even “college-educated, South Hills liberal elites” against "ignorant, Bible-quoting rubes."

Five things became clear to me as I listened to remarks from both panelists and audience members. First, it became obvious to me that, even after 35 years, not much has changed. The “anti-textbook” protesters still think the 1974 textbooks were un-American, anti-Christian and dirty. The “pro-textbook” folks still suspect that protesters just didn’t want their kids exposed to the writings of feminists, blacks and, well, to multi-culturalism.

The second thing that became clear to me is that Republicans will continue to use these wedge cultural issues to get poor disenfranchised whites to vote against their own economic interests by electing Republican candidates – many of whom don’t attend church and don’t know doodly squat about Jesus or the culture the textbook protesters wanted to protect – who will further disenfranchise them. Not long after “B1 Bob” Dornan came to Kanawha County to establish his conservative bona fides, he was elected to the House of Representatives in Orange County, California.

The third thing that became clear is that you and I may have never heard of the conservative Heritage Foundation had they not skillfully used the textbook controversy to raise a lot of money. Dr. Kenneth Underwood, Kanawha County School Superintendent during the textbook wars, got the Heritage Foundation’s Connie Marshner to admit as much during the panel discussion last night.

Incidentally, Marshner was rude to the other panelists, interrupting them and taking their time at every opportunity. I was disappointed that moderator, Hoppy Kercheval, didn’t insist that Marshner shut up and let somebody else talk and I couldn’t help wondering if Kercheval would have allowed a liberal panelist to behave that way.

Fourth, Marshner made it clear that, if conservatives get their way, only rich people will be able to educate their kids because Republicans would be allowed to take their kids and their tax money out of the public schools effectively de-funding public education, the only kind of education poor kids can afford. Throughout the evening, Marshner missed no opportunity to indict public schools for failing to educate kids and kept talking about charter schools and school vouchers which, as all good liberals know, are just another way for conservatives to opt out of paying for something that might potentially benefit black people, poor white people, liberals or society as a whole.

And finally, I learned that the reason the textbook controversy started as one thing and ended up about everything is that these occasional battles in the “culture wars” have really always been about everything. Liberals and conservatives have two entirely different visions of what this nation should be. We always have. We always will.

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