What Are Textbook Culture Wars?

content of educational texts hotly debated along political, religious lines

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

School textbooks are often changed to fit the whims of political parties. This censorship can drastically alter children’s perception of the world around them. Why are textbooks at the center of culture wars?

Books and school supplies on a white background with clipping path. You can change the background to whatever you want
The practice of banning books has been around for centuries. Photo by Mojaeic / Shutterstock

For centuries, books of all kinds have been challenged and banned while their authors have been harassed and even exiled. From Shakespeare to Salman Rushdie, writers and their publications have caused major stirs among the public and the government. This unrest can also result in the censorship of books and, unfortunately, schoolbooks are no exception.

Textbooks in India recently made headlines when it was discovered that they had glossed over or entirely omitted historical events at odds with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his political party, and the historical narrative they wish to push on India’s children. Similar “culture wars” take place in many countries, including the United States.

In her video series Banned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works, Dr. Maureen Corrigan, the Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University, pinpoints the origins of America’s textbook culture wars.

When Did American Textbook Censorship Start?

Book censorship in the United States dates back to the 17th century, but when it comes to textbooks in the modern era, many point to an incident in our lifetime.

“The modern culture war over textbooks began in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974,” Dr. Morrigan said. “‘War’ is not an exaggeration in the case of the Kanawha County struggle, in which two men were shot, an elementary school was firebombed, explosives were planted, and the school superintendent was sprayed with mace and received death threats.”

What caused such a horrific and violent incident? According to Dr. Morrigan, earlier in 1974, Kanawha County introduced new textbooks in order to comply with a state mandate that read that “school books should portray the contributions of minorities to American culture.”

School board member Alice Moore said that textbooks including minorities’ contributions to America were “anti-American” and promoted atheism, communism, and other ideas. She sought help from a Texas group called Educational Research Analysts to further her cause.

“Despite managing to assemble a petition signed by 12,000 Kanawha County residents, Moore’s side lost a school board vote during the summer of 1974,” Dr. Morrigan said. “But on the first day of classes in September, 9,000 children were kept home and a boycott was on, breaking down on rural versus suburban and urban lines. After months of struggle, the protests were eventually quelled and the textbooks adopted.

“But a new chapter in America’s culture wars had been initiated.”

How Does Texas Influence Textbooks?

Texas is the second-largest state in the United States, buying roughly 50 million textbooks per year for 5 million public school students. Due to the hefty book orders it places, Texas has considerable weight in disputing—and, thereby, shaping—textbook content for much of the nation.

To publishers of public school textbooks, losing Texas as a customer would be a potentially insurmountable blow to business.

“The contemporary conflicts in Texas, like so many ‘culture war’ conflicts in American life, have rough origins in the political and social struggles of the 1960s,” Dr. Morrigan said. “I’m specifically referring to challenges to hierarchies of gender and racial classification, as well as to the national self-image of the United States as a bestower of democracy to more benighted lands.”

Indeed, Dr. Morrigan noted, since there’s no exact consensus over some of the fundamental questions about American politics, culture, and economics, it makes sense that large and intense debates would follow regarding how these subjects are covered in schools.

Banned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily