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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The OTHER Textbook Culture War

You know the script: Progressives face off against conservatives, fighting over history textbooks. Progressives want more focus on freedom struggles, conservatives on America’s exceptionalism. It’s the story we hear a lot, and one I focused on in my book about educational conservatism. My reading these days, though, points out the hidden importance of a very different sort of textbook battle.

As do a lot of academic types, I spend my summers catching up on reading. I often agree to write reviews of new books for a variety of academic journals. This summer, I’m reading historian Charles W. Eagles’ new book Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook.civil rights culture wars

It’s a terrific book. If you want to read my full review, you’ll have to wait til it comes out in the Journal of American History. In these pages, I’d like to talk about something else, something I don’t have room for in my official review, one of the most revealing and eye-opening parts of Eagles’ history.

Professor Eagles tells the story of a new state-history book for Mississippi, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. It was an effort by sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis in the early 1970s to bring a more balanced and more progressive history to Mississippi’s ninth graders.

Eagles tells the story of the controversial book in remarkable detail, and the usual players all show up. Progressives liked the book for finally including African Americans in the history, not only as loyal slaves or bumbling Reconstruction-era politicians, but as Mississippians. Conservatives blasted the book as unbalanced, obsessed with denigrating the history of the great state of Mississippi.

As I followed the predictable back-and-forth, I couldn’t help but hear an additional muted counter-melody running through all the deliberations. There was an additional voice struggling to be heard, a point of view beyond the usual culture-war progressivism and conservatism.mississippi conflict and change

Over and over again, the experienced teachers who reviewed and rejected Loewen’s and Sallis’s textbook made a similar complaint. The book was no good, they argued, not because of any overarching ideological slant, but for a much more pragmatic reason. Any boasts about the academic excellence of the history or about its progressive ideology were simply beside the point.

Using this textbook, the teachers wrote, would make it impossible for Mississippi teachers to do their jobs.

Why?

Because the content of the textbook would unsettle classrooms. It would make it impossible for teachers to do any teaching at all, since teachers would instead be breaking up fights among students.

Consider, for example, the remarkable testimony of textbook-review board member John Turnipseed. The book was “unsuitable for classroom use,” Turnipseed concluded, because “in a racially mixed classroom, the discussion of the material would be improper. . . . [it] would cause harsh feelings in the classroom.”

The judge in the federal case could hardly believe his ears. Judge Orma Smith asked Turnipseed if Turnipseed really thought images and discussions of lynching could be left out of a Mississippi history book.

                Judge Smith: “You don’t see any historical value in that kind of situation?”

Turnipseed: “No sir, I don’t. I feel the contributions made by blacks as well as whites are more important and should not be degraded.”

Smith: “The racial situation that existed wouldn’t have had any historical significance at all? Where are students to learn the fact if they don’t learn them in school?

Turnipseed: “Again, I think in integrated classrooms it would cause resentment.”

Just as historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued in his landmark book Whose America, school leaders always prefer to add in bland praise, rather than to suggest any criticism. Every social group demands that their history be praised, and school leaders like Turnipseed usually acquiesce. To do anything different would unsettle classrooms in a dangerous way.

It was not only white conservative board members like John Turnipseed who focused on the goal of quiet classrooms. African American board member John Earl Wash also voted against the Loewen and Sallis book. Images of lynching, Wash argued, hurt African American students. “The 9th grade black student,” Wash wrote, “would probably resent hearing about the lynching topic.”

Even though Loewen, Sallis, and their fans envisioned their new textbook as a corrected, pro-civil-rights history, experienced teachers like Wash had different worries. Topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, Wash testified, were things Mississippi African Americans “want to forget.” Worst of all, the progressive textbook put African-American students in physical danger. In Wash’s words,

Blacks just resent anything that I would say would carry them back to times of slavery, anything. Then anything to do with the Klan or terrorizing blacks or something of this nature, right, it would definitely bring conflict.

In racially mixed classrooms, talk of lynching and Klan violence threatened to do more than simply educate young students. As experienced teachers knew, talk of violence could quickly become real violence, putting minority students in the crosshairs.

In 1970s Mississippi, at least, there were other reasons for opposing progressive textbooks than mere knee-jerk traditionalism. Teachers knew that the topic was explosive among students. If they hoped to control their classrooms, they didn’t dare expose students to controversial ideas, even if they agreed that those ideas were true and important.

I Hart Review Season!

Well, it’s finally here: Review Season! Just like baseball fans wait for pitchers ‘n’ catchers to report; like bird fans wait for swallows to return…nerds just can’t wait til review season every year. This year, I’ve been asked by two journals to review two intriguing-looking books, and I can’t wait.

The first is for the Journal of American History, the academic journal of the Organization of American Historians. It’s a book by experienced Mississippi historian Charles W. Eagles. Here’s how the University of North Carolina Press describes it:eagles book

Just as Mississippi whites in the 1950s and 1960s had fought to maintain school segregation, they battled in the 1970s to control the school curriculum. Educators faced a crucial choice between continuing to teach a white supremacist view of history or offering students a more enlightened multiracial view of their state’s past. In 1974, when Random House’s Pantheon Books published Mississippi: Conflict and Change (written and edited by James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis), the defenders of the traditional interpretation struck back at the innovative textbook. Intolerant of its inclusion of African Americans, Native Americans, women, workers, and subjects like poverty, white terrorism, and corruption, the state textbook commission rejected the book, and its action prompted Loewen and Sallis to join others in a federal lawsuit (Loewen v. Turnipseed) challenging the book ban.

Charles W. Eagles explores the story of the controversial ninth-grade history textbook and the court case that allowed its adoption with state funds. Mississippi: Conflict and Change and the struggle for its acceptance deepen our understanding both of civil rights activism in the movement’s last days and of an early controversy in the culture wars that persist today.

The second review is for the American Historical Review, the academic journal of the American Historical Association. Here’s the publisher’s description:rubin book

The Christian Right of the 1980s forged its political identity largely in response to what it perceived as liberal ‘judicial activism’. Robert Daniel Rubin tells this story as it played out in Mobile, Alabama. There, a community conflict pitted a group of conservative evangelicals, a sympathetic federal judge, and a handful of conservative intellectuals against a religious agnostic opposed to prayer in schools, and a school system accused of promoting a religion called ‘secular humanism’. The twists in the Mobile conflict speak to the changes and continuities that marked the relationship of 1980s’ religious conservatism to democracy, the courts, and the Constitution. By alternately focusing its gaze on the local conflict and related events in Washington, DC, this book weaves a captivating narrative. Historians, political scientists, and constitutional lawyers will find, in Rubin’s study, a challenging new perspective on the history of the Christian Right in the United States.

I’m looking forward to spending review season with both of these books. The journals are only available via subscription, but I’ll be allowed to post my reviews here when they’re done.