From the Archives: Yoga, Schools, and “Those Dirty Books”

As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has argued in these pages recently, a yoga program in Encinitas public schools has raised the ire of some religious conservatives.  The story has subsequently been  picked up by the New York Times and National Public Radio.

As Professor Mehlman Petrzela pointed out in her article, such fears of yoga as religious indoctrination are not new among American conservatives.

During my research into an earlier generation’s fight over school textbooks, I discovered such complaints as early as 1974.  In that year, a school controversy exploded in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  As journalists such as Trey Kay and scholars such as Carol Mason have described recently, the bitter fight over new textbooks led to a months-long school boycott and repeated shootings and bombings.

In 1974, the beleaguered Kanawha County Board of Education appointed an eighteen-person committee to investigate the accused textbooks.  A majority of the committee found the books unobjectionable.  But in November, 1974, a minority splinter committee issued a blistering 500-page denunciation of the textbook series.  The minority report included specific objectionable passages with comment.

For instance, from a first-grade teachers manual from the DC Heath “Communicating” series, the committee extracted the following suggested discussion-starters: ‘Has anyone ever awakened and found a stranger looking at him?  Has anyone ever broken a toy, a chair, or some other article the first time he was visiting an unfamiliar house?  Has anyone ever had a dream in which he talked with some animals?  Has anyone ever seen a deserted house?  Did you go in?’

In the minority committee’s opinion, “A child should not be forced to discuss his own personal feelings.  This constitutes an invasion of privacy.  This is also
behavioral change.  Why should a 6-year-old child be subjected to questions that will implant fears and frustrations in his mind.  Why not have questions on pleasant and wholesome attitudes?”

The minority report complained that the textbooks’ version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story was “more sadistic and gruesome than usual.”  Elsewhere, the minority report objected, students were instructed to make up their own myths, including one about why all humans don’t speak the same language.  “The question why men do not speak the same language,” the minority insisted, “is answered in the Book of Genesis.  The inference that the answer can be classified as a myth again presupposes that the Bible is based on a myth.”

Most interesting to the folks of Encinitas, however, might be the minority committee’s complaint that articles about yoga amounted to “religious indoctrination.”

Makes me wonder where and when else the conservative campaign against the teaching of yoga in public schools has surfaced.  As Mehlman Petrzela points out, school-yoga supporters in the press and school district seem utterly unaware of this longer history.  As she wrote in her December article,

“The press, the EUSD, and scores of online commenters expressed shock that anyone would suggest, ‘a little stress-reducing exercise ever hurt anyone,’ especially in the context of a much-discussed ‘obesity crisis.’ The Los Angeles Times couldn’t believe the degree of the plaintive parents’ worries, as yoga is regularly practiced in San Diego spots as disparate as the Camp Pendleton naval base and the Jois yoga enclave, which funds the school program. Glamour commented, ‘most people associated with the controversy are scratching their heads,’ quoting similarly incredulous Jois chief executive: ‘It’s hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you’re inviting the devil into your soul.'”

Perhaps this posture of surprise is put on only to discredit conservative opponents.  After all, if anti-yoga activism seems startling and unexplainable, it might gain fewer political supporters.  But at least some of the surprise sounds genuine to me.  It seems another good illustration of the ways widespread ignorance of the history of conservative educational activism impairs any sort of useful discussion of current educational policy.

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  1. I agree with you that much of the surprise is genuine, and borne of genuine ignorance! But I also think there is an issue with educational reformers of any stripe – from Horace Mann to the Encinitas yogis – portraying their particular innovation as “neutral” or above controversy. Any and every pedagogy derives from a particular set of values, and (we) educators should be more transparent about acknowledging the fact that part of the point of education IS to be transformative of our students, a goal which is education at its best, but also its most threatening to many. That is, I *DO* have a set of values from which I teach – the predictable ones of tolerance, critical thinking, respect for diversity, etc – and I DO hope students come to adopt those as a result of my classes… and I have to realize that those goals are not above criticism, but arguably on par with the goals of Christian conservative pedagogue aiming to impart a particular value system to his or her students. Jon Zimmerman has a good articulation of this idea somewhere at the end of his INNOCENTS ABROAD book. Thanks for another insightful post, Adam!

    • Hmmm…We could probably add to that: Not just Zimmerman’s Innocents Abroad, but lots of ed history, including leading books such as David Tyack’s One Best System. As Tyack argued, it was often the “administrative progressives” who were most naive about their own assertions that they could “take the schools out of politics.” Educational historians are often taught first and foremost that no one really can take the politics out of schooling. The best we might be able to do, as you say, is be clear and explicit about the politics embedded within any schooling process.
      Maybe that is why we educational historians (and historians in general, for that matter, and anthropologists, etc.) sometimes seem so offensively accommodating to those with whom we disagree. Lots of our training consists of studying times/ways in which schools have been used to indoctrinate one or the other group with ideology, culture, and theology. For instance, when I read conservative Christian or creationist complaints that public schools are indoctrinating students with “secular humanism,” I put it in context of all the arguments I’ve read about schooling. Not just David Wallace Adams and James Anderson, but lots of leading ed historians such as Joel Spring and Michael Katz have insisted that schools do indeed exist to indoctrinate and enculturate students in one way or the other.
      Sometimes readers of this blog complain that I and other academic historians go too far in respecting the cultures of those with whom we disagree. As you say, Natalia, ed historians are trained precisely to sniff out ways in which education is used to deliver ideas and culture, explicitly or implicitly. We are often trained to point out the ways that schools do indeed “impart a particular value system to [our] students.”
      But for many people, an insistence that public schools really do impose a distinct ideology and culture upon their students sounds like a defense of conservative complaints.

  1. What You Need to Know about: Yoga in Public Schools | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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