ONTO THE BONFIRE
In 1907, Mark Twain reacting to efforts to censor his work wrote: “But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”
Twain surely would have been amazed and thoroughly amused to find that in Texas last year, in addition to three attempts in different school districts to yet again ban his American masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, seven local citizens tried to stop students from reading the Bible at Boerne High School because, it’s “dangerous.” These and other actions by self-appointed thought police can be found in the ACLU and the Texas Library Association’s recently released sixth consecutive annual report on censorship in Texas public schools. (In the Boerne case, one can almost hear the cries from the fundamentalists likely responsible for most of the censorship attempts noted in the report: “Oh, we didn’t mean that book.”)
Topping the list was the child-pleasing Harry Potter. There were 71 challenges in 21 districts from parents and teachers worried about “mysticism/paganism” in the popular series written by J.K. Rowling. None of the school libraries actually banned the book although several restricted its use. Also challenged were such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and aptly enough, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Someone at Hutto High School complained about the book’s sexual content and an alternate book was allowed for those who objected.
The book most often banned was the award-winning Taming the Star Runner by S.E. Hinton, which was knocked out of school libraries in Lamar CISD (Rosenberg), Cherokee ISD, and Ector County ISD (Odessa).
The Vidor ISD banned Harry Blackmun (Supreme Court Justice) at its Pine Forest Elementary School because a parent complained that “…discussion of Roe v. Wade and the abortion issue was inappropriate for elementary grade level.” Vidor ISD banned more books than any other district in the state, a total of six including Snow Falling on Cedars about Japanese internment during WWII.
Among the wackier attempts at censorship was an effort to ban Webster’s Dictionary because it included the word “nigger”; an Algebra I book because it was “dominated by women and blacks and latinos”; and a physical science text book because it tells “the student they are no better than pond scum.”
Texas ACLU executive director Will Harrell notes that there are no statewide mandated standards for dealing with challenged books and so each individual school district handles them differently. “The current lack of standards, perhaps by design, leave it wide open for a vocal, militant minority to impose their will on the rest of us, stifling education and a genuine exchange of ideas,” he says.
In one incident described in the report, a teacher at Van Horn Junior High School found a number of boys huddled around a book–a dream for any educator in this Playstation age. But since the book was The Teenage Guys Survival Guide, which deals with adolescent sexuality, she quickly brought it to the principal. In a perfect example of how fear and intellectual development are incompatible, the book was then banned from the school.
OBSERVER MAKES HISTORY
It’s social studies textbook selection time again in Austin, and the war over “inaccurate” history has been fully joined. (See “Ignorance as Power,” Jimmy McWilliams’ account of veteran conservative book vetter Peggy Venable in action, in the August 30 issue.) We have detected an inaccuracy of our own in an August 29 front page Austin American-Statesman story about a textbook that failed to make the cut, because the authors “insulted” the State Board of Education in the text. For the record, the authors of Practicing Texas Politics did not insult the Board of Ed. We did. The offending passages in question were from a T.O. article which was reprinted in the textbook by permission. The article (“Have Republicans Lost the Fire: GOP Pundits Air Some Dirty Laundry,” by Nate Blakeslee, March 2, 2001), appears in its entirety in a section clearly marked “Selected Reading,” and is identified as coming from the T.O., a fact that eluded the Statesman (and, later, the AP), as well as, apparently, the board members themselves. Among other things, the board objected to our assertion that conservative board member Bob Offutt was targeted for removal by Bill Ratliff and Karl Rove (after Offutt campaigned against Bush), that board chair Grace Shore’s appointment by Governor Perry was a snub of the conservative Christian bloc on the board, and that the board in general had become “a major embarrassment” to the Republican Party of Texas. Touchy.
“We don’t know where they got their information, but they sure didn’t talk to any of us,” Grace Shore told the Statesman. Well, as the article clearly indicated, we talked to a broad range of Republican consultants, and we stand by the story, much of which is common knowledge in Austin anyway. Ratliff and Rove did support Offutt’s opponent, Dan Montgomery. Shore herself is now a lame-duck member, having been defeated in the primary last spring by a candidate funded by fellow board member Geraldine Miller, a member of the board’s Christian conservative contingent. Even more recently, Offutt and two current members, including hard-line leader David Bradley, have been indicted by a Travis County grand jury. So far they have only been accused of violating the Open Meetings Act, but the grand jury is investigating possible conflicts of interest in the management of the Permanent School Fund. All of this is embarrassing me, just reading it. Is it embarrassing to the Republicans? Party spokesman Ted Royer says no.
The Statesman also left unasked a crucial question in this story: Are Texas elected officials really the right people to objectively judge the merits of a textbook about electoral politics in Texas, particularly when they themselves are identified by name in the book? This isn’t history, after all, it’s politics. That debate may never occur, since the publisher, McDougal Littell, voluntarily withdrew the textbook from consideration after board members called attention to the passage during a meeting last month.
The ironic thing here, according to Lyle C. Brown, who has been a co-author of the book (now in its 11th edition) since 1971, is that the text was never meant for high school readers. It’s a college-level textbook that McDougal decided to submit this year as a supplement to their U.S. Government textbook for honors high school courses. “They never told me they planned to do that,” Brown said. “If they had, I would have warned them.” Brown retired from Baylor University six years ago after thirty years in the political science department. (Peggy Venable was one of his students in the 1970s.) He said he has caught some flak over the years for using T.O. selections in the textbook. “That never bothered me. I don’t agree with a lot of what you guys publish, but a person can distinguish good journalism from bad,” he said. The current flap over his textbook only demonstrates why he has always considered the Board of Education to be a good vehicle for teaching Texas politics to his students, Brown said. He hopes the grand jury investigation is concluded in time for the 12th edition, due out next year.