It's not funny, of course, and I hope you are not one of those people who has got sent to the bottom of the class all your life for laughing at things that are terribly serious. If you are, it probably cannot be helped. One of the heavy afflictions of some people is the devilish habit of detecting hilarious aspects in matters of grave public, corporate or private concern.
With this warning, then, I alert you to one of the various Shames of America, this one having to do with censorship of textbooks.
First of all, you must contemplate the possibility, unlikely as it is, that some pupil will read his textbook and (here the odds are utter) be affected by it.
Second, you must assume that textbooks are chosen by the appropriate authorities on rational grounds, and third, you must assume that publishers of textbooks are serious wholesome folk keen to bring the best information possible to the Children of America.
If you can swallow these assumptions, you are well on your way and will be pleased to hear of the great development of learning in the state of Texas.
There, so great is the itch for learning, the state has a textbook commission sufficiently gung-ho that Texas is the second largest market in America for public school textbooks. These books are reviewed from time to time in the capital (Austin) and after due pondering the approved books are ordered with the understanding they will be used in Texas schools for six years at least. Furthermore, Texas pays for the order through its Texas Education Agency directly to the publishers. The publishers think the world of this arrangement since they get their cash "fast and clean" as one of them put it.
But if a textbook is turned down for use in Texas, you have lost one of your biggest potential buyers. Same is true of California.
It is just as well, therefore, if you publish textbooks, not to offend anybody who can turn down your book, or argue successfully against it to the ruling authorities in either of those states.
I suppose that in lesser places, like the national capital, it makes no great difference what we do or think, but it does make a difference what is done in Texas.
Here the plot thickens.
In 1961 it occurred to Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Tex., that there were some pretty objectionable things in textbooks, and in that year they began their protests (still continuing) against objectionable material that was brainwashing the little cowpokes.
The Texas State Textbook Committee, the one that meets next Monday in Austin, is composed of 15 members who, in the approved democratic way, entertain any objections that people have to textbooks being considered for use in the state. The Gablers, for the past two decades, have been thinking up a great many objections, and they formed a nonprofit corporation, the Educational Research Analysts, to present their objections to the state commission. They have, naturally enough, sought support from like-minded folk in other states.
If a textbook, for example, says "nothing about the earth's beginning is known with any certainty," you might suppose that is a pretty unarguable statement, but the Gablers object (formally, to the textbook commission in 1982) that "this is a matter of opinion. Such a statement, presented as fact, undermines the belief that some parents teach their children of creation."
In 1981 the Gablers had objections to 21 textbooks being considered in Texas. Ten were rejected by the textbook commission.
And this year, as usual, they have a number of objections, like the one I have cited. Here's another, in which the textbook says:
"No one knows exactly how people began raising plants for food instead of searching out wild plants . . ."
The Gablers object that this leaves no room for the account of "Cain as a farmer."
The Gablers have found allies throughout the country who agree with them that (as stated in their Handbook No. 1) "until textbooks are changed, there is no possibility that crime, abortion or venereal disease rates will decline."
Not surprisingly, some people who think the Gablers and their like are cadmium-plated loons, have opposed their textbook efforts. One such opposition group is People for the American Way, on 18th Street in Washington. Barbara Parker, director of this group's Schools and Libraries Project, has been saying for years that what the Gablers are doing, and the point of view they represent, is damaging to sanity and reason in the textbook business.
Now, she says, publishers are beginning to censor themselves, not waiting for the Gablers to find something wrong about Cain as a farmer, say. Thus American Heritage Dictionary representatives, she says, have agreed to remove "offensive words" from their dictionary, and an important textbook publisher has removed the very word, "evolution," from a biology text.
If you follow the argument for two or three years you soon begin to think the Gablers are awful folk who are making endless mischief for sane folk.
As it happens, I think highly of Barbara Parker and suspect the Gablers and I might differ here and there. But you have to admit that it's not just the Gablers' right, but their bounden duty, to take an interest in public affairs. We are always being yapped at to vote in this and that and to concern ourselves with the school board and zoning laws and historic preservation and police policy and all that stuff, and here are the Gablers down in Texas bestirring themselves on behalf of virtue and righteousness, as they conceive them.
So they are to be complimented for their public-spiritedness, as I see it. Of course there are people who have received only the poor coppers of memory (as a poet said) from the gilded country. Here is America with a civilization really more brilliant than we usually feel like saying, and within America there are those who still think agriculture descended from Old Cain who had a farm with a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there.
This seems amazing. All the same, when a war comes or taxes are to be collected, we expect the Gablers to do their bit and I am sure they do. As citizens they need pass no test (such as being approved of by H. Mitchell) to sound off their educational views. There are differing views, as you know, how venereal disease is caught. For all I know, it may indeed be from textbooks.
The thing that amuses me a little--and wrongly, no doubt--is that in these Gabler-type situations we usually grumble about the Gablers without thinking of, say, the great publishers who start deleting words and stories from their textbooks and anthologies for fear the Gablers will fuss at them and urge their state commission not to buy the books.
Who really has the greater responsibility, a rural Texas family worried about alien attitudes (as they put it) in books, or the rich publishers who buckle at the first hint of opposition to a book?
It is pointed out that the Texas commission only entertains objections to textbooks and has no machinery to deal with those who think the books are fine.
Well, is that the Gablers' fault, that the state commission is set up wrong? Is there no power in Texas able to change the present arrangement of the commission's procedures?
Are there no citizens in Texas interested enough to prevent the Gablers' having undue influence in the selection of textbooks? And in other states, are there no ways to counteract the undue influence of the Texas textbook market on the books used in American schools?
The Gablers have filed 600 pages of objections to Texas textbooks this year, to be considered by the state in its hearings next week. There is something funny in the vision of the Gablers sitting around the house dreaming up 600 pages of objections to this and that, while publishers sweat.
Though of course the whole situation is a Real Shame. Still, you can see why the Gablers worry, too, what with half the kids of Texas coming down with VD from the textbooks.