Already, there is considerable outrage, and properly so, over the discovery that some grinch in a textbook company has been busily censoring the sex out of Shakespeare, but anyone who has been paying half a mind to the rising number of complaints about textbooks could have seen it coming.
Shakespeare was absolutely obsessed with teen-age sex, drugs, ghosts, witchcraft, incest, adultery and shrewish women -- pernicious influences, all, on the tender minds of America's youth. It's a wonder his stuff lasted this long.
At the Scott, Foresman textbook company, however, somebody saw fit to tone down his purple prose. This came to light, hereabouts, at least, when a member of the Fairfax County textbook advisory committee discovered that her son's version of "Romeo and Juliet" was missing some of Juliet's best lines -- which turned out to be rather tame when compared with today's rock lyrics. Marlene Blum, the textbook committee member, blew the whistle and the State Board of Education, apparently unaware of the textbook vandalism, has asked for a staff study, and Dr. S. John Davis, state superintendent of public instruction, has asked for a full report on what else was excised.
Blum said the committee had found that all the publishers had in some ways edited Shakespeare, and she told a reporter: "When all publishers do it, you have no option . . . . It's as if they have become the arbiter of what children are to read and not read."
Which is precisely the point, and precisely the problem, because American textbook publishers have increasingly been bowing to pressures generated by a handful of fundamentalist zealots to tamper with textbooks, "dumbing down" their contents to make them acceptable to the lowest common denominator and therefore the broadest possible marketplace. What makes this critically important is the fact that whatever book learning most people get, they get from elementary, junior high and high school textbooks -- the very ones being made "safe."
Much of this activity has been taking place in Texas, one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the country, where right-wing activists, spearheaded by Mel and Norma Gabler, have been going over textbooks with fine-tooth combs in an effort to root out such evils as secular humanism, evolution, perceived distortions of the Constitution and of the traditional roles of the sexes. One of the upshots of their campaign was that the Texas State Board of Education ruled that biology textbooks used in the schools did not have to mention Charles Darwin. The ruling was later rescinded, but not before it was in effect for a decade, and not before publishers began dropping Darwin out of texts.
Barbara Parker, program director of People for the American Way, which led the struggle against censorship in Texas, says the organization documented efforts in 48 of the 50 states to alter, censor or remove books and teaching materials from schools and public libraries between 1983 and 1984. The changes in "Romeo and Juliet" published by Scott, Foresman and Co. first came to her organization's attention last year when a parent living in Minnesota, who happened to be a Shakespeare scholar, noticed passages had been tampered with. Parker says she has gotten calls that textbook versions of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" also have been altered.
"Until these incidents are brought to our attention, I don't think anybody sits down and says, let's see if Shakespeare's works are being changed. Nobody thought that would happen."
Textbook publishing is a billion-dollar business, a mighty powerful force for mere intellectual integrity to contend with. And textbooks have become a favorite target of the Far Right and the evangelists who have demonstrated that their followers can be painstaking, as well as pain-giving, haranguers of local school boards.
Unfortunately, most parents have neither the time, inclination or scholarship to spot vandalized passages of classics or omissions of important scientific theories. Equally unfortunately, most of us haven't the time to pay attention to the insidious campaigns of self-anointed protectors of public morality.
But attention should be paid, and school boards are going to have to develop enough spine to stand up to censors, send back defective material and take their business elsewhere. There is no better evidence for that than what has happened to Shakespeare. If a publisher can change "lie with thee tonight" to "be with thee tonight," then "out, darned spot" can't be far behind.