Higher Standards » Informative articles on Christian education » The Complexities of Censorship in Secular Textbooks

The Complexities of Censorship in Secular Textbooks

Many Christian schools use secular textbooks because they believe these books reflect the best scholarship, backed by modern educational theory and expertise. Ironically, recent concerns voiced by secular educators prove the opposite to be true. Accusations of censorship, which on the surface may seem admirable to Christian audiences, actually reveal deep philosophical problems in the secular textbook industry. The censorship controversy shows that these texts are inappropriate for Christian schools.

What the critics describe as the “sanitization” of modern textbooks, at first, seems to be a positive trend for Christian users. The most-often cited example of the tremendous influence of censorship in secular textbooks is a conservative Christian organization in Texas— Educational Research Analysts. Concerned Christian parents Mel and Norma Gabler founded it over 40 years ago.1

“Political correctness is often more important than scientific accuracy: Middle-school text publishers now employ more people to censor books for content that might offend any organized lobbying group than they do to check facts.”

Not only do the Gablers themselves claim tremendous influence, but secular observers agree that their impact on Texas textbooks—and therefore, the nation’s—is profound. Diane Ravitch, well-known educator and author of The Language Police, a renowned exposé of textbook censorship, describes the extent of the Gablers’ influence: “Since the 1960s, any publisher that expected to win adoption of their textbooks in Texas had to anticipate that the Gablers would review the contents and values in their books and teachers’ guides on a line-by-line basis. Knowing this, publishers engaged in self-censorship to head off possible confrontations with such conservative critics.”2

Although Mel Gabler died in 2004 and Norma Gabler has retired, their organization, under the direction of their protégé Neal Frey, still wields enormous influence. For example, “in 2004, both publishers and the Texas board of education agreed to a proposal, at Frey’s urging, that clearly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman in health textbooks.”3

Even their critics acknowledge the influence of the Gablers’ organization. The National Center for Science Education, an organization that defends teaching evolution in public schools, condemns the Gablers “as the most effective textbooks censors in the country. This couple has been promoting their narrow fundamentalist views for over twenty years by criticizing and influencing the removal of textbooks that contain material opposed to their views.”4

The Gablers’ method for exerting conservative influence was to use their state’s public textbook adoption hearings to vocalize their objections to the textbooks being considered for use in Texas. These hearings offer private citizens the opportunity to raise objections about textbooks, to which the publishers must publicly respond. Trying to avoid controversy in order to sell books, the publishers would often comply with the Gablers’ demands. Ironically, the Gablers’ organization no longer testifies at these adoption hearings because, according to their website, “Lowering our voice and working under opponents’ radar gets better results.”5

However admirable the Gablers’ objectives and results, their methods opened the door to other interest groups who also want to influence the textbooks used in public schools. Although Christians may respect the conservative influence of the Gablers, they should beware the influence of groups like Norman Lear’s People for the American Way. Diane Ravitch contends that “Whereas the right gets topic control [of textbooks], the left gets control of language and images.”6 Although the state adoption proceedings in Texas wield conservative influence over textbooks, the proceedings in California encourage liberal control over the same publishers.

Because of these politically correct interest groups, there exists a closely followed collection of “bias guidelines”7—used by educational publishers, test development companies, states’ adoption rules, and scholarly and professional organizations—that severely restrict the use of language in secular textbooks. Ravitch explains that “the guidelines regulate what writers are permitted to say about specific groups in society, including women, the elderly, people with disabilities, and members of racial and ethnic minorities. Anything that is published in textbooks must be satisfactory to representatives of these groups [which] must be presented only in a positive light.”8

These guidelines have become increasingly complicated and dictatorial, to the point that they include a list of over 500 words that are banned from all textbooks. For example, to satisfy the feminists, according to Ravitch, “words that include the prefix or suffix man or men must be excluded; such words as manpower, chairman, forefathers, freshman, businessmen, and mankind are banned.”9

Also, the guidelines are contradictory and hard for publishers to follow. For example, Ravitch explains that “all educational materials [must] have a fair and balanced representation of people with disabilities. They must be shown with devices such as walkers, crutches, canes, wheelchairs, and braces.” However, none of these people portrayed with such devices can be elderly—because that image would imply a negative stereotype of the aged, which must always be portrayed as “healthy, happy, and able to run a marathon.”10

These various interest groups impact textbooks in all disciplines. John Hubisz, reporting the results of an analysis of middle school science textbooks conducted by the American Association of Physics Teachers, concludes that “political correctness is often more important than scientific accuracy: Middle-school text publishers now employ more people to censor books for content that might offend any organized lobbying group than they do to check facts.”11

“Most classic literature [in fact, anything written before 1970] is unacceptable when judged by the new rules governing references to gender, ethnicity, age, and disability.”

Diane Ravitch reports that “mathematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves ‘critical theorists.’ They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice,” clearly “an explicitly political agenda” for the classroom.12

But it is undoubtedly the literature and history textbooks that earn the closest evaluation by political activists. For example, literary selections chosen must reflect racial balance as reflected by Census Bureau statistics. According to Houghton Mifflin’s guidelines, “a reading book with twenty-two selections would include three pieces by African American writers, three by Latinos, two by Asian Americans, one by a Native American, and one by a writer with a physical disability.”13 Furthermore, Ravitch explains, “most classic literature [in fact, anything written before 1970] is unacceptable when judged by the new rules governing references to gender, ethnicity, age, and disability.”14

However, the most recent public battles have involved history textbooks. Gilbert Sewall of the American Textbook Council testified to the Senate in 2003 about the “disturbing” “collaboration of educational publishers with pressure groups and textbook censors.” He described publishers who “cater to pressure groups for whom history textbook content is an extension of a broader political or cultural cause. They make books whose content is meant to suit the sensitivities of groups and causes more interested in self-promotion than in historical fact, scholarly appraisal, or balance.”15

Of particular concern to Sewall is what he describes as Islamic political action through the “virtually unchecked power” of the Council on Islamic Education over leading publishers of history textbooks. He argues that “for more than a decade, history textbook editors have done the Council’s bidding, and as a result, history textbooks accommodate Islam on terms that Islamists demand.”16

The latest tumult over history textbooks involved two Hindu groups who just this year demanded numerous changes in textbooks adopted in California. These two foundations, the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation, submitted 500 proposed changes to the textbook approval committee in an effort to see textbooks portray Hindu faith and culture more sympathetically. Sam Wineburg, Stanford University professor of education, warns that “Even though the board resisted many of the changes sought by activist groups this time, the conflict could still impact future textbooks with publishers being tempted to soften the content on their own initiative.”17

Whether their influences are positive or negative, conservative or liberal, political pressure groups have captured control of secular textbook publishers in our country. With such political forces haggling over the contents and language of these textbooks throughout every discipline, it is clear that these books cannot be the best option for Christian schools.

1 See their website at www.textbookreviews.org.
2 Diane Ravitch, The Language Police (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), p. 105.
3 Sean Cavanagh, “Chapter & Verse,” Teacher Magazine (January /February 2006), p. 29.
4 Steven Schafersman, “Censorship of Evolution in Texas,” National Center for Science Education Resource, Vol. III, No. 4 (Fall 1982), p. 30.
5 See http://www.textbookreviews.org/QandA.htm.
6 Ravitch, The Language Police, p. 24.
7 The most influential of these bias guidelines is published by McGraw-Hill, titled Reflecting Diversity: Multicultural Guidelines for Educational Publishing Professionals (1993).
8 Ravitch, The Language Police, pp. 32-34.
9 Ravitch, The Language Police, p. 38.
10 Ravitch, The Language Police, pp. 38-39.
11 John Hubitz, “Middle-School Texts Don't Make the Grade,” Physics Today, Vol. LVI, No. 5 (May 2003), p. 53.
12 Diane Ravitch, “Ethnomathematics,” The Wall Street Journal (June 20, 2005), p. A14.
13 Ravitch, The Language Police, p. 46.
14 Ravitch, The Language Police, p. 25.
15 Gilbert T. Sewall, Testimony before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Intellectual Diversity (September 24, 2003).
16 Gilbert T. Sewall, Islam and the Textbooks (New York: American Textbook Council, 2003), pp. 25-26.
17 Charles Burress, “Hindu groups lose fight to change textbooks
But decision by state Board of Education is supported by some Hindu Americans,” San Francisco Chronicle (March 10, 2006).