Required Reading: Textbook Culture Wars

[Editor’s Note: I’m happy to be able to share my review of Charles Eagles’s recent book, Civil Rights: Culture Wars. It will appear in the March, 2018 edition of the Journal of American History. The editors gave us permission to reprint it here verbatim.]

What history should schools teach? Who should decide? And how? These questions have always been central to the United States’ tumultuous culture wars. With Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook, Charles W. Eagles offers a valuable new exploration of one twentieth-century battle over these questions.eagles book

Eagles’ book examines the career of a controversial new state-history textbook in 1970s Mississippi. Sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis hoped their book, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, would introduce Mississippi’s ninth-graders to the kinds of history that had been widely accepted by academic historians. Instead of preaching a bland, saccharine history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil-Rights Movement, Loewen and Sallis hoped to tell the full story of Mississippi’s conflicted history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mississippi’s educational establishment balked. The new textbook was rejected by the state textbook commission as “‘unsuitable’ for classroom use” (156). Critics worried that Loewen’s and Sallis’ text harped on racial animosity. Images of a lynching, especially, caused consternation among commission members. Even one African American member of the commission believed the new textbook would remind African American students of a violent history “they want to forget” (183).

In the end, the authors had to force a federal lawsuit to have their book adopted for state use. Even with their victory in court, they found to their disappointment that not many school districts selected their book.

Eagles tells the story of the origins of the new textbook and its long struggle for adoption in admirable detail. He includes a fascinating examination of earlier history textbooks in Mississippi. By and large, those books told the story of heroic white Mississippians working tirelessly for freedom, assisted by loyal slaves and plagued by corrupt carpetbaggers.

One widely used textbook from 1930, for example, informed Mississippi schoolchildren that “the life of a slave [was] pleasant” (46) and that Reconstruction-era terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan was “a grim necessity” (47).

Eagles’ book also offers a valuable insight into the banality of culture-war bureaucracy. He details the process by which textbooks were adopted in Mississippi. More often than not, texts were not chosen for their intellectual rigor or methodological innovation, but rather for their low cost and ease of use. Members of the textbook committee recoiled at any whiff of controversy, preferring instead to select textbooks that celebrated Mississippi’s history, even the ugliest parts.mississippi conflict and change

At times, Eagles’ perspective seems too close to that of Loewen and Sallis. For example, Eagles praises the authors’ surprising ignorance about the field of secondary history education. As Eagles argued, that ignorance “actually benefitted the MHP [Mississippi History Project] by fueling their effort with an independent, even innocent, evangelical air” (99). It’s hard to believe that ignorance of the field would ever be an asset and Eagles is too willing to explain away Loewen’s and Sallis’ faults.

Despite this minor flaw, Civil Rights, Culture Wars offers a thorough, valuable description of the ways the convoluted politics of history and memory played out in 1970s Mississippi.

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