In his recent confession (Outlook, March 14) that he actually "enjoys many of today's public school battles over books," Noel Epstein overlooks several key facts about the growing censorship movement--its scope, its political dimensions and its harm to education.
The national attack on schoolbooks is not a simple case of concerned parents trying to screen out nasty words or match reading materials with a child's maturity.
The accelerating censorship crusade is part of a nationally coordinated campaign to advance certain political values and exclude others. A small army of vocal parents, armed with lists of "objectionable" books drawn up by national book "reviewers," is challenging the very goal of education--to foster independent, creative, critical minds.
One need only look at the activities and statements of leading book-banners to see that political issues--not education or morality--are their chief concern:
* Anticipating the end of her "Stop ERA" campaign, Phyllis Schlafly has said she will soon beef up the activism of her Eagle Forum's "Stop Textbook Censorship Committee." Schlafly's Eagle Forum in St. David, Ariz., successfully banned all required reading lists in the school system, which included classics by Conrad, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Homer, Poe, Steinbeck and Twain.
* The Rev. Jerry Falwell declared that most public school textbooks are nothing more than "Soviet propaganda." The North Carolina chapter of the Moral Majority objected to one social studies text because it asked students to discuss, "Do we really need 50 state governments plus one national government?" The objection: "The importance of federalism should be clearly taught, not questioned."
* The Wyoming Family Rights Forum sued a school board to suppress a history text because it found it "anti-family" (not all women described were mothers and homemakers) and "anti- free enterprise" (it accurately stated that the 19th century Populist movement favored a graduated income tax).
As part of their self-proclaimed "battle for the mind," these book-banners oppose textbooks that discuss women's suffrage and the women's movement, slavery in America, trade unions, ecology, world hunger, American Indian experiences and the Watergate history.
Much of the leadership for the schoolbook censorship comes from Mel and Norma Gabler, a retired Texas couple with immense influence on textbook adoption procedures in their state, and thus the entire nation. A textbook that doesn't sell in Texas is almost guaranteed to be an economic flop nationwide, since that state accounts for more than 10 percent of the nation's textbook purchases.
The Gablers succeeded in having banned from Texas schools seven social studies texts that they had targeted during the 1981 Texas textbook commission hearings. The Gablers' understanding of "education" amounts to indoctrination. As they explain, "Allowing a student to come to his own conclusions about abstract concepts creates frustration . . . a concept will never do anyone as much good as fact."
The Gablers' group, Educational Research Analysts, has raised $1.5 million to build a "Research and Review Center" that will supply 16,000 activists around the country with textbook "reviews" and advice on censorship tactics. The 22 states where textbooks are approved on a statewide basis (the "adoption" states) are favorite targets for book-banners because each represents a large market. In 1981, textbook adoptions in half of the 22 adoption states were influenced by the Gablers, according to one study.
Parental concern about textbooks is not something to be condemned. As a school administrator commented in the 1981 censorship survey: "Opposition is the most healthy thing that can occur (in a school system)--provided it's in an environment of participation, not domination." But book-banners typically shun the light of publicity or the due process of formal hearings. When possible, they prefer to remove books from the shelves after hours or through private dealings with principals.
Not surprisingly, teachers and librarians, fearful that parent-vigilantes will raise a ruckus, are beginning to censor themselves. They refuse to consider some worthy books for the classroom or library shelf because of the potential political consequences. Publishers, also fearful of censors, sometimes modify their texts rather than forgo major book markets. The lesson of censorship is not lost on some students, who learn that a free and inquisitive mind is often a liability.
When a censorship group was pressuring the school board of Fresno, Calif., to drop a textbook series because it encouraged "evaluative and creative thinking," a local corporate manager, Ronald Santigian, said he was "concerned and frightened" by the suggestion. "It is difficult to find employees who are good analytic and creative thinkers, people who can make decisions. The survival of our free enterprise system depends on persons who can think creatively," he told the school board. Fortunately, more people like Santigian are starting to realize the dangers of censorship in our schools and libraries.