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The Twilight of Common Dreams
Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars
By Todd Gitlin

Chapter One: A Dubious Battle in Oakland

Columbus day of 1992 should have been the perfect occasion for teaching schoolchildren about American Indians or, as the city of Oakland, California, officially calls them, Native Americans. Oakland, with an African-American plurality and a white minority in its population and on its city council, was no partisan of the conquering ex-hero from Imperial Spain, who was now frequently held an author of genocide. Indeed, the Oakland Board of Education had resolved that schools should "focus the October 12th curriculum of every year on Native American culture, contributions and history."

Moreover, after much travail, the State of California had just adopted a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade history-social science textbook series published by Houghton Mifflin, offering little comfort to traditionalist partisans of Columbus or, indeed, to anyone inclined to see American history as the unbroken progress of benign Europeans across a savage and underutilized continent. Of the pages devoted to historical narrative in Houghton Mifflin's fourth-grade book, Oh California!, 15 percent went to sympathetic accounts of several California Indian nations. In the eighth-grade text, A More Perfect Union, an insert in chapter 3 entitled "Understanding Eurocentrism" cautioned against regarding American history simply as the saga of triumphant European "discovery." ("As you read more about the colonial period, try to imagine how American history might have been different if European settlers had been more open to the ways of other cultures.") The text declared: "Although their names and discoveries live on in romantic stories, most of the conquistadors acted ruthlessly in their search for riches and power. They treated the native inhabitants of America cruelly, enslaving them and often killing them. The conquistadors left a trail of slaughter as they searched for lost cities of gold."

The politics of textbook adoption in California, as in a number of other states, are intricate. The process could be called messy and political, or it could be called democratic. To be adopted by California schools, text- books have to pass through several filters. Roughly every seven years, the state chooses a list of acceptable textbooks. The texts must be written in accordance with a "framework" approved by the state board of education. After public hearings, they must be cleared by the board's curriculum commission, then certified by the board itself. Once certified as eligible for adoption, they are referred to local school boards for further open hearings. All these hurdles have to be passed before textbooks are voted on by local school boards.

In the summer of 1990, when the Houghton Mifflin series came up for certification by the state's curriculum commission in Sacramento, one might have expected Christian fundamentalists, long dismayed by what they saw as a dangerous undermining of American verities, to rise in righteous indignation against so "politically correct" a dismantling of the "we came, we saw, we conquered" version of American history. After all, attacks from the cultural Right have long been a staple of textbook adoption proceedings. But on this occasion, although one Christian fundamentalist, wielding the psychological jargon that has become routine on these occasions, did maintain that the new textbooks "could be very damaging to the self-esteem of a fundamentalist Christian child" because they implied that fundamentalists are "emotional and hysterical," the complaint was easily addressed, was not followed up, and had no great effect.

Rather, the focus in Sacramento, and in the media, was on the groups of the cultural Left. To great media fanfare, a number of group representatives testified passionately that the books were "racist," religiously discriminatory, and otherwise demeaning. Muslims, Jews, Chinese Americans, gays, and, most vigorously, African Americans objected. A group calling itself Communities United against Racism in Education (CURE) offered eighty-five single-spaced pages of objections to the kindergarten through fifth-grade books alone, charging that they contain "stereotypes, omissions, distortions, exaggerations, and outright lies about peoples of color"; that they are "unidimensional" and "Eurocentric," taking "the side of colonialism and exploitation," "uncritically extol[ling] the white supremacist concept of Manifest Destiny" and "anthropologiz[ing] indigenous peoples"; that they "justify and trivialize ... some of the most vicious social practices in our history," and "marginalize the lives and struggles of women, working and poor people, people with disabilities, and gay and lesbian people." In CURE's view, Houghton Mifflin "places the white establishment at the center of the universe and all the rest of us as their `burden.' The insidious message is: in order for some children to be proud of their histories, other children must be made ashamed of theirs."

CURE pointed to some genuine instances of establishment bias, and to a number of places where the books were uncritical in a Dick-and-Janeish way, even arguably jingoistic in a traditional civics-book manner. They did find occasional passages in the books that could reasonably be read as subtle or not-so-subtle disparagements of foreign and minority cultures-for example, a European's jocular account of lengthy Chinese names. They rightly objected to a traditional account of Thanksgiving for failing to mention that Puritans and other colonists killed Indians. They chastised the third-grade book for calling John Wesley Powell "one of the first people to explore the Grand Canyon" when, of course, he was one of the first white people to do so. They pointed to a literature excerpt that contained the line: "She had blue eyes and white skin, like an angel." They argued that telling the children to make simulated Kwakiutl masks trivialized the spiritual qualities of Kwakiutl ceremonies-though they neglected to note that textbooks customarily trivialize the spiritual qualities of everybody's ceremonies. Where a teacher's edition referred to helpful police, CURE wrote: "In many communities, specifically communities of color, police officers are regarded not as helpers, but as people to fear."

But CURE and other critics did themselves no favors by interspersing valid criticisms among scores of indiscriminate ones. The majority of CURE's charges were trivial and hypersensitive. They were so eager to find ethnocentrism in these texts that they seemed to quarrel with the notion that there was or is a dominant American culture. They objected to the profusion of American flags in the texts' pages. They objected that in the kindergarten book's illustrations people of color looked "just like whites, except for being tinted or colored in," and that when photographs of children of color appeared, "there was no discussion of their respective ethnic identities and specific contributions." When the books singled out minorities' customs, CURE saw disapproval; when the books didn't single them out, they saw neglect. They saw cultural bias against Cambodia when the second-grade book mentioned that a Cambodian child living in Boston plays in the snow when he couldn't have done so in Cambodia, since it "never snows there." They again cried bias when the second-grade book traced an African-American family back one generation less than a family of German descent, and chastised the book, written for seven-year-olds, when it failed to discuss the details of sharecropping. They denounced a passage on the baseball player Roberto Clemente for not mentioning that Jackie Robinson opened the way for him, and objected to a list of inventions because all were invented by white men. They criticized an exercise inviting students to write a personal story from a slave's point of view, on the ground that it is impossible "to imagine being enslaved."

In Sacramento, however, CURE's and related objections grabbed the mighty attention of the media. So did flamboyant statements like that of an African-American woman calling the books "Eurocentric pap-slanted, racist, and wrong" and maintaining that they contributed to a "mental holocaust" of "self-esteem problems" for black children. Such claims were supported by the Black Caucus of the state assembly. So were Chinese Americans' complaints that the books trivialized the exploitation of the Chinese laborers imported to build the transcontinental railroads. There were Muslim objections to a description of Mohammed-strictly forbidden in Islam-as well as to a suggestion in a teacher's edition that a student play the part of Mohammed in a skit. Another strong objection was that in the world history volume, a diagram of a camel and its trappings was used to illustrate the "Moment in Time" capsule contained in the chapter on "The Roots of Islam"-the only animal used for such a purpose.

Nowadays, people of color have no monopoly on hypersensitivity. The California Jewish Community Relations Council brought its own list of offenses against the sixth-grade book, A Message of Ancient Days. They argued that the text presented Judaism as a passing prologue to Christianity. They objected to capitalizing the Christian "God" while the Jewish "god" was lower-case. They objected to treating the Jews as a people of laws and rituals, invidiously compared to Christians with their belief in kindness and love. They objected to the phrase "Old Testament," wishing it changed to "Hebrew Bible"; they deplored one lesson title, "An Age of Transition," and a reference to "His [Jesus'] Resurrection." They objected to the book's version of the story of the Good Samaritan, on the grounds that the bad neighbors were identified as Jews. Unremarked, however, on the same page, the source of this parable was referred to as "a popular Jewish teacher named Jesus."

The protesters were unimpressed by the fact that the seventh-grade world history volume included fifty-three pages on sub-Saharan Africa (10.6 percent of the entire narrative), fifty-six pages on Islam (11.2 percent), thirty pages on China (6.0 percent), and thirty-four pages on Japan (6.8 percent). As a memo from California's Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig later pointed out, where a previously adopted world history text had devoted only one of its forty chapters to African history and ancient American Indian cultures combined, one-eighth of the new seventh-grade book was devoted to the Indians, or Native Americans, alone an increase by a factor of ten. Nor did the critics seem to care that the textbooks frequently represented a radical departure from the history taught in earlier decades. The same seventh-grade book that offended some Muslims with the camel picture also noted that "Christian and Muslim sources portrayed the crusaders differently," and declared: "Traditionally, we learn history from the point of view of the winners." (Of course, the crusaders were losers in the short run, but Europe's storytellers have traditionally awarded them the righteous victory and not dwelt on the embarrassing denouement.)

For their part, the authors plausibly defended the accuracy of their text on the great majority of points but agreed to a list of corrections on others-John Wesley Powell as the first white man to travel down the Grand Canyon, the Central Pacific railroad hiring "thousands," not "hundreds" of Chinese, and so on. The pictures of Mohammed were deleted, and the suggestion that a student play the role of the prophet replaced by the suggestion that a student interview a Muslim scholar. Gary B. Nash, the UCLA historian who was one of the authors of the series, later acknowledged to me that the offending camel was "a mistake. We thought it would be neat to show how an animal could be a means of diffusion of culture. Our mistake was that it's the only capsule which shows an animal. From the orthodox Moslem point of view, it plays on the stereotype of the Arab as a `camel jockey.' The camel will go as soon as we revice the seventh-grade book." One sentence disliked by the Christian Right was revised. As for the Jewish objections, "Old Testament" became "Hebrew Bible," "An Age of Transition" became "Religious Developments," and an insert was added on developments in Judaism after Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan was modified to note that the man beaten by robbers was also a Jew. But some corrections were inconsistent. Many of the references to the Israelites' "god" were shifted to the upper case, but many-at times on the same page-were not. (Christianity's God was now consigned to the lower case only once.)

With the disputatious hearings completed, the state curriculum commission recommended adoption of the Houghton Mifflin books, subject to corrections. ln October 1990, the state board of education approved the revised Houghton Mifflin books at every grade level, along with an eighth-grade text published by Holt, Rinehart&Winston Local school boards were free to choose whichever they preferred for the eighth grade. At other grade levels, local boards would have to accept the Houghton Mifflin books or seek a state waiver to use funds that would otherwise be spent on textbooks to acquire their own materials, pending state approval.

Opponents now turned to the local adoption proceedings. Over the next few months, Los Angeles and San Francisco school boards, among many others, held their own contentious hearings, and ended up approving the Houghton Mifflin series. The opponents' only victory in a big city came in Oakland, the sixth-largest school district in the state. One consequence was that when Columbus Day rolled around in 1992, Oakland's fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-grade teachers had no textbooks at all to help them teach about California's Indians or, indeed, about anyone else.

The textbook battles took place in circumstances that were primed for rancor and inauspicious for education. Years of ficeal crisis had taken their toll on resources available for public services in California. A tax revolt kindled with the passing of the 1978 citizens' initiative called Proposition 13 had accelerated with the passing of several sequels. The result had been the slashing of the revenues available to local governments, and state funds had failed to make up the shortfalls. In addition, a downturn in California's economy not only worsened the social conditions that demoralize children but cut state school funds, gutted art, music, and other academic programs, closed libraries, and crowded the classrooms. In Oakland, for example, teachers were routinely responsible for more than thirty students at a time. Between 1969 and 1994, California slid in per-pupil school allocations from among the top ten states to forty-first. Still, the state had allocated money for new textbooks. Moreover, Bill Honig, the energetic reformer who was the state's top school official, was committed to a curriculum that would take account of the multiple cultures of America. Long before the time came to purchase new textbooks, Honig had established a commission to draw up a new "framework"-a slate of specifications that publishers would have to meet by 1990 to qualify for statewide approval.

That framework, approved in 1987, was a brave attempt to square the pedagogical circle. It required that grade school history be taught with an emphasis on the multiplicity of historical experiences while stressing the "centrality of Western civilization." At the same time, it insisted that history be integrated with social studies and literature, and told as a coherent story. It required that the K-8 curriculum include three full years of world history-one of which was to cover the ancient world-along with three years of American history and one of California history. It insisted that the study of religion be integrated into the historical curriculum. (Perhaps it was this provision that placated the right wing.) The framework's coauthors were Charlotte Crabtree, a professor of education at UCLA, and Diane Ravitch, a professor of history at Teachers College of Columbia University, a leader of the fight against "Afrocentrism" in New York State's curriculum, subsequently assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, and a political lightning rod. "Diane Ravitch was chosen to do a sneaky end-run," Toni Cook, then vice president (and later president) of the Oakland Board of Education, told me later. "She wanted to put things in the books which were very kindred to what the conservative forces were trying to do in New York. For example, this idea that all Americans are immigrants."

Though California accounts for 11 percent of America's textbook sales and offers a market of more than $50 million, the $20 million cost of a new series was such that the only publisher willing to meet the deadline with an entire line of new books was Houghton Mifflin, which lacked a history series of its own. Houghton Mifflin linked up with a group of textbook entrepreneurs called Ligature Inc. Ligature's education experts wanted to break with one of the hoariest of textbook traditions, namely, stodginess. Their designers, trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, specialized in dazzling wake-up devices-overlapping illustrations, questions stuffed into the margins, colored inserts alternating with black-and-white segments, visuals dripping down and across the pages, full-page drawings encapsulating "Moments in Time." When they showed a prototype segment to focus groups of California teachers, the teachers approved.

For two years, Gary Nash told me, "we just went hell-for-leather." Given the elaborate back-and-forth process of outlines and drafts, comments from experts and teachers, and redrafts, Nash agreed that two years was just not enough time to compile ten books (kindergarten through eighth grade, in addition to an alternative fourth-grade book for possible use outside California). "Each of the four authors was supposed to read everything," Nash said, "though it was impossible." Nash himself was teaching a full load at UCLA and trying to finish two other books. His coauthors, Beverly J. Armento, director of the Center for Business and Economic Education at Georgia State University, Christopher L. Salter, chairman of the geography department of the University of Missouri, and Karen K. Wixson, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, were not historians. Nash played his main role in the earlier stages-setting up extensive outlines and trying to insure that the books would, in fact, be multicultural. Much of the carelessness of the texts, he said, the lines attacked for racism and bad faith, came from the rush job.

In any event, with the books accepted at the state level, Gary Nash thought the worst was over. He had not anticipated much flak in the first place. He was, after all, well known as a multiculturalist, as well as one of the most prolific American social historians of a cohort trained in the 1960s and devoted to reconstructing American history, in the words of an early revisionist slogan, "from the bottom up." Nash's books included Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America, which, in the words of his introduction, "proceed[ed] from the belief that to cure the historical amnesia that has blotted out so much of our past we must reexamine American history as the interaction of many peoples from a wide range of cultural backgrounds over a period of many centuries." In 1970, when (under Governor Ronald Reagan) the regents of the University of California fired the activist Angela Davis from her philosophy post at UCLA, Nash headed her defense committee, which raised enough money to pay her salary. That same year, he helped redesign the introductory course in American history at UCLA, turning it into the history of an interaction of peoples. He had already written a popular textbook for eleventh-grade American history that many districts, including Oakland's, had adopted unopposed.

At fifty-nine, the sandy-haired, neatly bearded Nash was wearing a work shirt and stonewashed jeans when I spoke to him at his comfortable Pacific Palisades home. The art on the wall was Mexican, the lunch was burritos. Nash was now president-elect of the Organization of American Historians-with the support of colleagues of all colors-and was being considered for the position of head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. During a four-hour period, his phone rang five times for conversations about other textbooks he was working on.

Nash has the easy, welcoming manner California has made famous, although he grew up in Philadelphia. During the interview, he spoke deliberately, in an unruffled tone, until one of two subjects came up. The first: the downgrading of ordinary people in the old-fashioned version of history. Then he accelerated. "What does it tell our kids, to say that only great men make history?" He swept passionately into an example of a person he wanted to write about when the Houghton Mifflin books were first being outlined: Fred Korematsu, an ex-welder and high school graduate who had tried to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II and who, when the authorities came to intern him along with his Japanese-American compatriots, refused to comply, was arrested, tried, convicted, and appealed his internment all the way up to the Supreme Court. "Or take the sixth-grade book, A Message of Ancient Days, on world religions," Nash went on. "In the course of the school year, you don't even get to Europe until February. Just by doing it this way, we broke the mold."

The second subject that aroused Nash's ire was the attack on his textbooks as "racist." Like many another-especially many another white-who identifies with the universalist tradition of the Left, he was stunned. He did not fully grasp how his ecumenical position could have come under such intense, downright unheeding fire. In his incomprehension, Nash was, and is, in good company. In the heat of the battle, it is hard to grasp why people who care about justice strike so venomously against those who, whatever their differences, stand closest to them. During recent years, many men and women of goodwill have had trouble understanding why they, of all people, have been singled out as enemies. They are rationalists. Confronted with unbalanced, ungenerous, sometimes downright bizarre accusations, they go on trying to meet them with straightforward arguments: Jews did not dominate the slave trade; melanin in skin pigment does not increase intelligence. But this was not the project white leftists were supposed to have signed up for! They were supposed to be teaching about conquest and slavery, struggles for freedom, and how history goes on from there. Nash, like many another man and woman of the Left, didn't know what hit him.

Nowhere was the outcome more shocking than in Oakland. With an elected school board composed of four African Americans, two Chinese Americans, and one white leftist; a school superintendent of African-American and Latino descent; and a teaching staff almost half nonwhite (and largely left-of-center in disposition) responsible for teaching a student body that in 1990 was 46.9 percent black, 24 percent white, 18.8 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 15.2 percent Hispanic, Oakland might have been the very model for what is called, these days, multicultural education. Moreover, school administrators had decided that, for the first time, teachers at the various grade levels would make their own text recommendations, and for the most part, the teachers liked the new books. So Nash was not prepared for the eruption that greeted him when, on March 18, 1991, he flew to Oakland to address an open meeting sponsored by the Berkeley and Oakland school boards at Claremont Middle School in a middle-class, largely white section of Oakland near the Berkeley city line. (The Oakland and Berkeley school boards were debating the books simultaneously.) All the seats were taken long before the meeting began and the room was overflowing with more than a hundred people. Some were parents, but at least as many, by various accounts, were ethnic studies students, mainly black, from San Francisco State University across the bay. The hall was festooned with placards bearing slogans like STOP POISONING YOUNG MINDS! Mary Hoover, a professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State (now a dean at Howard University), was Nash's principal antagonist, accusing the books of "sheer Eurocentric arrogance." Hoover focused on a passage in A Message of Ancient Days in which an early "naked dark-skinned" human on the east African plains carries a "bloody bone" that "oozes . . . red marrow." Hoover maintained that there was an implication that these early Africans were cannibals.

"She misrepresented the books," says Steven Weinberg, an eighth-grade history teacher who, when I spoke to him, had spent twenty-four years at Claremont Middle School and supported the adoption of the Houghton Mifflin books. "I said, they're not talking about cannibalism. They're carnivorous." (By the time the books were published, the "bloody marrow bone" had become, simply, "a bone" containing, incidentally, marrow, and the naked persons were no longer specified as "dark-skinned.") "The way she distorted these books," Weinberg says, "they were like something out of the eugenics movement. It was as if they were worse than Goebbels. There was cheering and yelling. It was really ugly. The attacks on Gary Nash were ridiculous and ad hominem. He was trying to establish his credentials, and he said he had been on the Angela Davis defense committee. Someone got up and said, `We have to remember that there were plenty of people on that who did not have Angela Davis's best interests at heart.'"

"It was an auto-da-fe, a one-sided battle," maintained Harry Chotiner, a former UC Santa Cruz professor of American history and member of the editorial board of Socialzst Review who now teaches at the private College Preparatory School in Oakland. Chotiner had accompanied a friend, an Oakland curriculum official, to the meeting because, he told me, "Gary Nash had been a hero of mine. When I was a graduate student in history, I had a lot of respect for what he'd written about Native Americans and blacks, the new social history. It was a pilgrimage for me." Chotiner was shocked, therefore, to find that "not one speaker was willing to give him or the editors the benefit of the doubt. No one said, `I like this about the book, but on the other hand I don't like that.' Instead, the objections ranged from the thoughtful to the silly to the scurrilous." The point about the camel Chotiner agreed was thoughtful. An example of the silly was the objection that a section on black history in one volume didn't focus on Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. (1his particular volume stopped at the year 1900, Nash responded.) An example of the scurrilous was the contemptuous charge from an African-American student that the use of the term Afro-American at one point in the series was "clear evidence of deep-seated racism, and so he as a white man and a racist had no business trying to teach her."

Chotiner estimated that there were twenty or thirty of the silly and scurrilous attacks. "In most cases, bad motives were assumed, and Gary and the editors were the enemy. People would have spoken in the same tone if the authors had been George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Bull Connor. There were no attempts to bridge gaps, to find common ground. I was really stunned by the anger. It wasn't even an anger of betrayal-`How dare you do this when we share something in common?' The anger was, `This is just what we expected.' I was completely intimidated by their anger. I thought, this is outrageous, but I couldn't get up and talk. My legs would not support me, my arm would not go up into the air. If you asked me, Why not? Were they going to beat me up? No. Were they going to slash my tires? No. Throw a rock through my window? No. I think I would have been heckled, and I don't think my comments would have made a difference."

"I wasn't expecting a dispute in which the critics declaim but they don't point to evidence," Nash said later. There was, for example, the charge that the books "trivialized" slavery. The seventh-grade book includes, among other descriptions of the horrors of slavery and the endurance of slaves, a graphic two-page passage from Frederick Douglass's autobiography. "Just fifteen years ago," Nash says, "the textbooks were full of happy slaves grateful to have been lifted up out of barbarian Africa. Getting an accurate account of slavery into the textbooks is the whole point of my career." He was, moreover, incredulous when a Japanese-American woman stood up to charge that the books trivialized the suffering of her people during World War II internment, saying: "We want our history written by our people." In truth, the seventh-grade book does sweep through its discussion of the relocation camps in a few lines. But these lines call the camps "prison-like" and point out that the internees were forcibly dispossessed (in a section entitled "The Ongoing Struggle for Justice"). In the fourth-grade book on California history, lesson 1 of the chapter "California in Wartime" begins with two pages on the internments-almost half the entire lesson.

Nash acknowledges that some criticisms were legitimate, in particular the accusation by some Chinese-American parents that not many pages were devoted to their ancestors in the California history volume. Still, he defended his choices. "My response was, you can't produce a book which is all-inclusive. You can't emphasize the Chinese in San Francisco and the Armenians in Fresno and the Portuguese in San Pablo and the Italians in North Beach and the Koreans in L.A. You can't write the history of every ethnic group in California. You certainly can't do it for the entire country." Arguably, the experience of the Chinese in America was more significant than the others. In any event, Nash's point is not likely to be persuasive to some minority parents convinced that their children, systematically humiliated by their exclusion from public imagery, need to find exemplars who look like them in history books.

© 1995 Todd Gitlin

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