Jessica's Notebook
November 2, 1986


As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Those unlucky folks who publish textbooks are sweating rivulets in the wake of an unfortunate but almost understandable decision by Judge Thomas Gray Hull over the content of reading texts used in Hawkins County, Tennessee, schools, and by extension, other school districts across the USA.

Textbook makers have been in a bind for some time. Over the past couple of decades, a phalanx of protestors has stormed the publishers' portcullis, complaining that this reference here is a blatant insult to our group and that reference there, while it may have some historical accuracy, is totally out of line for our day and age. Publishers, having no more backbone than others beset by this sort of pressure, respond exactly as you might think — with a line of shallow, insipid, uninformative texts, the most overreaching ambition of which is to avoid controversy.

Yet that very effort to assuage the critics by watering down the texts has brought more criticism. In a well-publicized study at Columbia, ten series of social studies textbooks in use nationwide were put under scrutiny. The study concluded that, trying to avoid flak from various and sundry religious groups, the publishers simply killed all references to religion, even the smallest. Someone outside our cultural milieu, reading these texts, might reasonably conclude that religion is an oddity committed by and for odd people, and therefore given justifiably short shrift in these educational tomes.

Ironically, the watered-down texts, rather than keeping the critics quiet, have increased the level of clamor. In the Hawkins County case, parents of a fundamentalist bent, unable to find any kind of support for the values they hold, filed suit to have unwanted facts about other viewpoints excised from the textbooks in use in Hawkins County, or, lacking that, to be permitted to pull their children out of classes that use the offending texts. Judge Hull found for the parents, declaring that a burden was unlawfully inflicted upon the fundamentalist families which would tend to restrict their Constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion.

One might ask here, "Cui bono?" To whose advantage does all this legal meandering work? The cause of academic freedom certainly isn't served when publishers censor their work in advance in hopes of averting lawsuits — or when historical fact is subjected to an endless cycle of distortions in the process. Attempting to minimize or to dismiss the role of religion and religious people in the shaping of this country is more than mere face-saving on the part of textbook publishers; it is an act of intellectual dishonesty.

Do parents gain from this exercise? If all parents felt exactly the same about everything, then, most assuredly, they would. But parents differ in their beliefs, in their values, and, to be sure, in their willingness to raise a stink. Is every conceivable view of Life, The Universe, and Everything to be covered in public schools — and if it be so, who is going to teach them? Who is going to learn them? And, while we're on the subject, just who is going to pay for them? Public schools have neither the time nor the resources — nor the mandate — to cater to every variation on the theme of "This is what we believe".

Needless to say, the children don't benefit from all this either — but do they ever? Pawns in the eternal game, revised and edited, all the better to sue you with, they have more important, more pertinent things to do than to provide cannon fodder for parents of an argumentative persuasion. Given that learning is important, what children do learn from cases like this is that grownups are even dumber than they look.

Who wins, then? Lawyers, of course, in their unceasing effort to make more work for themselves. Demagogues, of any persuasion, will hail this decision as a victory for all the right-minded people, by which they mean all those folks who agree with them. And — dare I say it? — writers of editorials are in for a field day. Meanwhile, all of us who complained about Federal judges running our schools are about to find that this decision gives them even more leeway in so doing, as flurry upon flurry of lawsuits descends upon the judiciary like a frozen acid rain.

And all this because some spineless editors couldn't find the words to say No....

As they sowed, so shall they reap.


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