Two Simple Rules for Textbook Conspiracies

It doesn’t matter if you’re a neo-confederate or a creationist, a Texas stalwart or a West Virginia hiller. If you want your textbook conspiracy to succeed, you only need to remember two simple rules.

This week the kerfuffle over John Kelly’s Lost-Cause-flavored Civil War comments brought the textbook question back into the news. As historian Arica Coleman reminds us, a for-real conspiracy of neo-confederates plotted and schemed to make sure neo-confederate ideas dominated history textbooks. How did they do it?

Confederacy Daughters Unveil Monument

Whitewashing the past, UDC style.

The neo-confederate textbook plot is something historians have known about for a long while. In Race & Reunion, David Blight detailed the battle over public memory of the Civil War, a battle largely won by neo-confederates. In Whose America?, Jon Zimmerman looked at the struggle over textbooks and the battle to teach children a culture-war flavored vision of American history.

As Professor Coleman retells the tale, schemers like Mildred Rutherford of the United Daughters of the Confederacy worried that schoolchildren were learning to blame the confederacy for the Civil War. They were learning that the war was caused by a ruthless determination to maintain the slave system in the South. They were learning that Confederate heroes were not always heroes after all. In other words, they were learning a reasonably accurate story about the war.

Rutherford and her allies wanted to put a stop to it.

To a large degree, Rutherford’s tireless activism worked. She applied pressure on textbook publishers to whitewash the story of secession and the connection between confederacy and slavery. And textbook publishers often complied.

The lingering influence of Rutherford’s ideas about history—what I’ve called the “eulogy” approach to understanding the Civil War and Reconstruction—tells us something about the way culture-war groups can and can’t police the intellectual goings-on in America’s schools.mildred rutherford 2

Textbook conspiracies succeed when they remember two simple rules. As Adam Shapiro demonstrated so brilliantly in his book Trying Biology, textbook publishers aren’t culture warriors. They recoil from controversy and they lust for sales. It’s a pretty simple formula:

  • If conspirators can promise sales, they’ll win.
  • If they can’t avoid controversy, they’ll lose.

As I recount in my history of educational conservatism, this pattern repeated itself over and over again in the twentieth century. When activists went against those two simple rules, their schemes failed. When they remembered them, the conspiracies worked.

Consider the example of Harold Rugg. Rugg was a progressive scholar who hoped to reshape American ideas about capitalism and democracy. He hoped his popular textbook series would cause kids to rethink the simplistic, jingoistic patriotism that they might have imbibed from their families and communities. With his allies and colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University, Rugg really did scheme and conspire to use his textbooks to push America in a leftward direction. The books were extremely popular, until the American Legion accused them of subversion in the WWII years. At the first whiff of controversy, school districts yanked the books. Sales plummeted. Rugg was flummoxed.

Or take the example of James Moffett and the Communicating and Interactions series in the 1970s. Moffett worked hard on these books—he hoped they would “rid[e] the crest of progressive energy that had wrought so many changes in the 1960s and seemed to mandate further innovations in schooling.” As Moffett later explained, he and his fellow editors

took a strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression that went far beyond wooing of minorities; we found that a feeling for folklore, a savoring of different styles, a respect for the whole human range made up want to set forth like a feast the varieties of reading matter.

Reading these multicultural tales, Moffett hoped, would transform classrooms and lives. Moffett’s dreams were shattered when conservative protesters in West Virginia labeled the new books controversial. In Kanawha County, administrators dithered and ultimately put the eight most controversial volumes under lock and key.

kanawha-textbook-image

How to scare a publisher.

Last but not least, don’t forget the culture-war successes of Mel and Norma Gabler. To a degree that surprised textbook bigwigs, this Texas couple managed to influence book purchases by telling politicians that certain titles were politically and religiously offensive. It didn’t take much. In the 1960s, Norma began attending public hearings of the state textbook committee. She and Mel prepared lists of criticisms for books they considered leftist. The committee listened and so did textbook publishers. Publishers soon asked the Gablers for approval for new titles. A tiny amount of pressure, judiciously applied, allowed the Gablers to move textbooks in conservative directions.

Why was their influence so profound? Simple. Textbook publishers follow two rules. Any whiff of controversy is anathema. They don’t care about evolution, or General Lee, or socialism. All they want is sales.

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