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.

Introducing: Shelfies!

What’s on your shelf?  What do you read to help you figure out questions about conservatism and American education?

I Love You But You’re Going to Hell is happy to introduce a new feature: Shelfies.  Readers are invited to send pictures of their bookshelves with annotations.  You can send them to the editor: alaats@binghamton.edu  Make sure the titles are legible.

Here’s a shelfie from our editor’s office:

What's on your shelf?

What’s on your shelf?

This is one of my go-to piles in my current work.  Here’s the breakdown:

1.) George Marsden’s Fundamentalism & American Culture.  It was this book (in an earlier edition) that first got me interested in the culture and activism of conservative evangelical Protestants.

2.) Arthur Zilversmit’s Changing Schools.  I refer to this book regularly.  It looks at the slippery nature of “progressivism” in American schools in the crucial period of 1930-1960.

3, 4, & 5.) The Ron Numbers Collection: Ron was my mentor in grad school at Wisconsin.  His work on creationism has been the bedrock reference for my historical research.

6.) James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  I use this book regularly with my students who are going into history education.  Loewen’s tone is always a little too strident for my tastes, but this book is always good for those who are thinking about teaching history for a living.

7.) Clarence Karier, The Individual, Society, and Education.  This is a good book.  Not enough people seem to read it these days.  Karier looks somewhat idiosyncratically at the long history of education in the United States.

8.) Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1935.  In this volume, historian Richard Niebuhr (brother of theologian Reinhold) offers an early and skewed definition of “fundamentalism.”  Niebuhr concluded, without much evidence, that fundamentalism was a rural phenomenon, an outgrowth of ignorance and isolation.  Though this definition doesn’t match the historical record, it proved enormously influential.  For decades, non-evangelical scholars accepted Niebuhr’s slanted definition without demur.

9.) Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. This well-known civil-rights history is there because I needed something to cover the gap in my bookshelves.  I can’t say I’ve ever read it, though I’ve always meant to.

So how bout it?  Send in some shelfies, tell us about what you’re reading.

From the Archives: Conservatives, Historical Knowledge, and the Political Process

Guest Post by Kevin B. Johnson

How could American History bother conservatives?

Most people probably believe that sex education and evolutionary biology are the most contentious subjects taught in school.

But conservative activists have also targeted American history.  Why?  Because as historians such as Jon Zimmerman and David Blight have argued, America teeters on a culture-war divide in its understanding of its own history; a culture-war divide no less contentious than questions about sex and God.

Nowhere has this battle over the nation’s history been more bitter or grueling than in Mississippi.

A look at the record of conservative activism in the Magnolia State may shed some light on the continuing battle over the nature of history.  It also demonstrates the ways conservatives have scored their greatest successes.  In Mississippi, at least, conservatives managed to win by promoting one central idea: historical knowledge, properly understood, is static and unchanging.

As the Cold War split nations into the Free, Unfree, and Third Worlds, Americans began scrutinizing their communities in search of suspected communists and subversives. In Mississippi, these searches involved the content in state-approved social studies textbooks. Civic-patriotic organizations such as the American Legion, the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation led the charge in exposing objectionable historical knowledge presented in social studies texts.

The civic organizations were not alone in controlling textbook content. In the 1940s Mississippi began providing students with schoolbooks; lawmakers also set up the State Textbook Purchasing Board charged with governing the screening and selection of all texts. In the Cold War context, however, many civic organization leaders believed the state’s education professionals were ill-suited for this job and challenged their role in screening school materials.

A few key figures spearheaded the effort to guard historical knowledge. Mississippi State College education professor Cyril E. Cain, for example, found reading and “doing” history to be a mystical-spiritual experience. In 1949, Cain learned about the California SAR calling for removal from that state’s schools the Building America textbook series. America and its democratic system was not part of a process, the SAR argued. Rather, American democracy had been built and perfected in comparison to rival governments.

Through the Mississippi Patriotic Education Committee, Cain called upon other conservatives guard against the historical knowledge contained in schoolbooks. He wrote to the state regent of the Mississippi DAR—Edna Whitfield Alexander, asking for collaboration between their two organizations “for the common cause of defending America” from textbook authors who espoused “alien ideologies.”

For the next twenty years, Alexander became the South’s preeminent textbook activist. She developed her organizational skills through the Mississippi DAR, which held significant power in the 1950s and 1960s. Many DAR members’ husbands served in state government or were the state’s business leaders; the DAR owned numerous radio stations throughout Mississippi. A segregationist society like other civic clubs, its members naturally opposed perceived egalitarian messages in textbook treatments of history, civics, and economics. History was the DAR’s domain and it held what they believed was magnificent power to order present-day society.

Gaining the attention of Mississippi’s leaders, especially Mississippi House Speaker Walter Sillers, Jr, by 1958, Alexander and DAR activists officially recorded their objection to the content in dozens of state-approved books.

The following are just a few examples:

“Laconic treatment of the South…did not mention Fielding Wright as Vice-Presidential nominee of the States Right party…praises Federal aid to education…Booker T. Washington picture is much later than Thomas Jefferson [sic]” –review of United States History, American Book Company, 1955 reprint.

“This slanted-against-the-South book makes no mention of the fact that Russia offered to help the North [during the American Civil War]” –review of The Making of Modern America, Houghton-Mifflin, 1953.

“…records a good bit of history—some of which we are not too proud, and conspicuously omits some of which we are very proud like religious freedom!” –review of Your Country and the World, Ginn & Company, 1955.

“…advocates creation of a state of social equality…” –review of Economic Problems of Today, Lyons and Carnahan, 1955.

“Formerly history was largely concerned with kings, monarchies, laws, diplomacy, and wars…Today history deals with the entire life of a people. So now were are told that history must change along with this changing world and George Washington, Valley Forge, and the U.S. Constitution are no longer worthy of recognition to be ignored so far as our children’s history books are concerned.” – wrote a DAR reviewer of The Record of Mankind, published by D. C. Heath, 1952.

The DAR, in addition, opposed books citing renowned scholars such as Henry Steele Commager, Charles Beard, Allen Nevins, Gunnar Myrdal, Arthur Schlesinger, John Hersey, in addition to Mississippi writers like Hodding Carter, Ida B. Wells, and William Faulkner.

These comments sent to Sillers demonstrate the DAR’s view of History.  In the DAR vision, History should be dominated by pro-South, segregationist, and patriotic biases. The reason for teaching history in the Cold War context, the DAR and others agreed, was to instill in school children loyalty to state and country.

The DAR, under Alexander’s leadership, began a concerted lobbying effort. In 1959, Alexander informed the Mississippi Superintendent of Education and head of the State Textbook Purchasing Board, Jackson McWhirter “Jack” Tubb, that “youth must be taught Americanism in its purest form if this Republic is to survive.”

The American Legion and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation became important DAR allies. These civic clubs conducted official studies of Mississippi’s approved books and found that many “cater to alien ideologies contrary to the Mississippi way of life.” Boswell Stevens, a Legionnaire and president of the state’s Farm Bureau, believed social studies curricula should cultivate among students adoration of quintessential American values like Jeffersonian individualism, capitalism, and patriotism.

During state elections in 1959, the lobbyist coalition collaborated by staging exhibits of objectionable texts in the lobby of the Robert E. Lee hotel in Jackson. After Sillers intervened the DAR moved the exhibit to the lobby of the state capitol in time for the 1960 legislative session.

Lawmaker-members of American Legion and the Farm Bureau dominated the Legislature, passing amendments to state laws pertaining to textbook screening and adoption. The amendment gave the governor, recently elected Ross Barnett, appointment power over the state’s education professionals on these important textbook screening committees.

These conservative victories were not unopposed, however.  Newspapers editorials considered the DAR efforts as a “witch-hunt” and the state’s teachers association believed that textbook reviews were best left to education professionals.

But politics—in this case, staunchly conservative politics—trumped the claims of journalists and teachers.  Conservative activists also managed to stymie complaints from academic historians. In 1975, for example, James W. Loewen and several co-authors of the history text Mississippi: Conflict and Change had to file a federal lawsuit against Mississippi for adoption of their revolutionary new textbook. Loewen even commented at the time that most of the state-approved books were merely “didactic chronologies.”

Loewen’s lawsuit demonstrated the deeply entrenched nature of conservative visions of History in Mississippi.  For decades, conservative activists had succeeded in establishing state sanction for their vision of History: a static, unchanging field of facts, uniquely useful for promoting patriotism and instilling a love for traditional Americanism.

 

Kevin Boland Johnson is a doctoral candidate in American history at Mississippi State University and a dissertation fellow with the Spencer Foundation. His dissertation, “The Guardians of Historical Knowledge: Textbook Politics, Conservative Activism, and School Reform in Mississippi, 1928-1988,” explores numerous education reform efforts designed either to constrain or improve public school social studies curricula. You can reach Kevin at kbj41@msstate.edu.