Nothing New? Not Quite, Mr. Perlstein

Is Toni Morrison bad for young people?  How about porn and graphic violence?

In yesterday’s Nation, Rick Perlstein offered an insightful article into the nature of these sorts of school debates over books.  As usual, Perlstein writes with clarity and perspective.  But his argument would be better if he had included a longer historical perspective.

The specific issue that attracted Perlstein’s attention was a recent flap in Fairfax County, Virginia, over the reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  As Perlstein reported, parents complained about gruesome depictions of bestiality and rape.

Beyond just reporting another such dust-up, Perlstein made some great points about the predictable pattern of such cultural controversies.

First, he noted from his historical research into the 1970s how common it has been for conservative activists to claim to be merely shocked and offended parents, taken by surprise by the filth brought home in student backpacks.

Second, he decried the too-easy sanctimony of some liberals.  It is too easy to take the Kevin-Bacon-in-Footloose position, Perlstein wrote.

“Liberals get in the biggest political trouble, . . .” Perlstein argued in his 2008 book Nixonland, “when they presume a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress.”

Perlstein’s argument is certainly worth reading in its entirety.  But it would be even stronger if he had stretched his timeline beyond the wall of 1968.  As I argued in my 1920s book, and as I’m developing in my current book, in order to understand conservative educational activism we have to go back at least to the 1920s.

For instance, the tradition of objecting to textbook content has long been a central conservative educational tactic.  Anti-evolution firebrand T.T. Martin tried this strategy in 1923.  The textbook at issue, Harold Fairbanks’ Home Geography for Primary Grades, contained a few basic evolutionary concepts.  Children reading such things, Martin charged, would soon abandon their Christian faith.  In typically colorful prose, Martin warned, “that child’s faith in the Saviour is gone forever, and her soul is doomed for Hell; and with your taxes, you paid to have it done.”

Image Source: JacketFlap

Image Source: JacketFlap

Similarly, an examination of the 1940 campaign to eliminate the social-studies textbooks of Harold Rugg could add a great deal to this conversation.  Before they came under attack from conservative activists in the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers, these books sold in the millions.  Critics charged, however, that the books would pervert young people’s minds and morals.  As one influential American Legion critic put it in 1940, children reading Rugg’s books would soon be

“convinced that our ‘capitalistic system’ is the fault of selfish fellows like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who wanted to save their property; that the poor man wasn’t given proper consideration, that in Russia the youth are engaged in creating a beautiful, new democratic order, that modern business is for the benefit of the profit-makers, that advertising in an economic waste, that morality is a relative value, and that family life will soon be radically changed by state control.”    

Or consider this gem from the 1950s...

Or consider this gem from the 1950s…

Including the longer history of these sorts of controversies offers more than a chance for historians to sell a few more books.

In cases like this, a longer perspective helps us see that there are indeed ways in which each new book controversy offers “nothing new,” as Perlstein’s title suggested.  But there are other aspects of this long history that show us how things have changed dramatically.

Most compellingly, Perlstein comments that activists in 2013 seem to be reading from a conservative script in some ways.  In every case—whether from 2013 or 1974—activists claim to be mere surprised parents, frightened and disgusted by the literature imposed on their students.

Perlstein compares this to similar stories from the 1970s.  But there are equally familiar stories from much further back.  The wildly popular evangelist Bob Jones Sr. used to warn his audiences in the 1920s about the surprises in store for conservative parents at many modern schools.  One family had scrimped and saved to send their daughter to a fancy college.  The parents had no idea what kind of teaching went on there.  After one year, Jones preached,

“she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.”

In the 1920s, as in the 1930s, ’40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, these claims of parent shock and surprise at the influence of schooling have resonated powerfully among American conservatives.

In other ways, the longer view can give us hope that this culture war is not simply and eternally deadlocked.  Since the 1970s, for instance, conservatives like the ones Perlstein mentioned have all argued that their opposition to books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved did not make them racist.  Perlstein cites 1970s activist Alice Moore, who argued that her policies echoed those of the NAACP.  (Listen to this clip from a 1974 school board meeting in which Moore makes her case: Kanawha Board 4 – 11-74 – 3.

Such conservative efforts to fight an image of racism go back beyond the 1970s.  In a school fight in Pasadena in the late 1940s and early 1950s, conservatives insisted they did not fight against new zoning rules because they were racist.  In one telling comment, a conservative activist insisted that she could not have been racist, since her school petition had been signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors” as well as whites.  She could not be a racist, she said, because she had quickly become friends with one of her new neighbors, a “Negro physician.”

However, before World War II, conservative activists made no such efforts to combat an image of racism.  As historian Jeffrey Moran has long argued (see here and here) white religious conservatives in the 1920s often paid little attention to their African American co-religionists.

Does it matter?  Can a longer historical perspective give us better understanding of the battle over Beloved in Fairfax County?

If we don’t see the ways conservative school activism has changed over the decades, we might be tempted to conclude too quickly, as Perlstein seems to do, that nothing ever changes.  That would be misleading.

Instead, the longer lens shows us that school battles have indeed changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  For those of us who agree with Perlstein that schools should force students to “think and question, to blow apart settled ways of looking at the world, and, yes, force them into mental worlds that disturb,” the historical perspective offers a more profound reason for optimism.

Leave a comment


  1. Patrick

     /  February 12, 2013

    This makes me curious about how this sort of conservative activism has compared, historically, with liberal activism of the same nature–manifested, for instance, in the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its offensive language. Similar motives and tactics? Or not?

    On a personal note, I attended high school in Fairfax County in the late 1990s, and recall that we were given the option in 11th grade literature of reading a book with inappropriate content (I think it was The Color Purple?) or an alternate book that was more considered more appropriate (Gore Vidal’s Burr, for some reason). Everyone seemed happy enough with this arrangement. But the most controversial thing that happened when I was in high school was when either the county school board or the state legislature required us to have a “moment of silence” in the morning and to recite the pledge of allegiance. A number of liberal students were deeply offended that this was an attempt to impose religion on us, and I heard of one school nearby where a number of students walked out in protest during the moment of silence. (Most students, however, appreciated the opportunity to enjoy a brief nap.) Regarding the pledge, I recall an article in our student newspaper expressing outrage that prayer was being forced into schools due to the fact that the pledge of allegiance contains the word “God.” So overall it seems to have been the liberals, not the conservatives, who found the most to be vocally upset about during my high school years in Fairfax.

  2. Excellent, will link this in my followup. Thanks.


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