Paradigm, No. 18 (December, 1995)

Joan Delfattore What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

Reviewed by John Wilkes

This well-written, well-documented book examines the pressures on school textbook writers, publishers and users in the United States, mainly by a series of loosely-lined case studies; in particular, the long campaign against the Holt, Rinehart and Winston Basic Reading Series, initiated by Christian fundamentalists in Hawkins County, Tennessee, and the pressures exerted in Texas and elsewhere by the activities of Mel and Norma Gabler and their associates. The perspective is scholarly, the tone neutral/liberal and the issues are properly exposed and thoughtfully discussed. What Johnny Shouldn't Read is certainly something which members of the Colloquium should read.

Two points present themselves at once to a British reader. Firstly, how great is the power of elected local and State school boards to determine what is used in schools; secondly, the role of courts of law in debating and determining what are essentially social issues. Delfattore offers a concise summary of the complex relationships which underlay this phenomenon:

  • Market forces -- exemplified by the California and Texas textbook adoptions -- put teeth into federal lawsuits and lead to the selection of textbook material for political rather than instructional reasons. So what do we do about it? The question is logical but not easy. Federal courts consistently uphold the principle that boards of education have the final word on instructional matters unless they do something blatantly unconstitutional, and trying to undo that system could easily cause more problems than it solves . . . Given the authority of school boards in general, the Texas and California state boards have a perfect right to tell publishers what they would like textbooks to include, and publishers are entitled to try to produce books that will sell in large markets. (pp.175-176)
  • The point can be illustrated by a typical case. A parent in Columbia County, Florida, objected to a book of readings used for over ten years previously in a school humanities course for sixteen to eighteen-year-olds. The particular items cited were 'Lysistrata' and 'The Miller's Tale' on the grounds that they contained vulgar language, sexual references, and the 'promotion of women's lib'. However, the objection went deeper. The parent was convinced that children should never hear any alternative views to those of the fundamentalist Christianity he practised, still less debate them, since the idea of debate was itself sinful.

    The local School Board agreed and removed the book from the syllabus, even though the course was optional, and parents had the right to request alternate readings for anything they found offensive. Other patents and their supporters demurred and the matter went to court. The School Board won at both the District Court and the regional Court of Appeal, where the judge commented regretfully that 'having concluded that there is no constitutional violation, our role is not to second guess the wisdom of the Board's action’ (p. 118).

    It would be easy, unfair and misguided to use this book as ammunition for anti-Americanism: easy because some of the instances are wonderfully barmy, 1 unfair because it is actually a strength of the American system that a 'pro' special-interest lobby immediately generates one or more 'contras', with the result that conflicting ideas are debated largely in the open (via an effective if sometimes long-winded and finicky legal system); misguided if an objector concludes that because attempts at textbook censorship are rarely publicised here, therefore they don't exist and everyone is happy.

    In fact, the British rarely pay attention to the contents of the textbooks their children use, it being somehow assumed that the books are value-neutral, as well as too dull to influence anyone, anyway. Yet fundamentalism in various forms is with us in this country, and it is a matter of surprise that objections are not more frequent and vehement than they appear to be. One would guess that such assaults, if they should come, would go beyond the knee-jerk political correctness of the chattering classes (rewriting Noddy etc.) to emulate the extreme American view that children should not be exposed to anything their parents, or any particular interest group would, or might, find objectionable.

    In considering remedies for censorship in the USA, Delfattore rejects a national curriculum, on the grounds that such a curriculum would be difficult to implement in practice and that the lobbying of special interest groups would be even more intense at the national level than locally. ‘There may be reasons for a national curriculum that do not fall within the scope of this book, but where potential censorship of politically volatile ideas is concerned, federalization does not leap out as the best hope for the future’ (p. 176).

    Instead Delfattore advocates self-publishing by local school districts and board, assisted by custom made components from textbook publishers or possibly school-university cooperation. She points out that locally produced materials need be developed only for topics where objectors are actually effective. 2 She insists that such approaches must be underpinned by parents' active participation in local community affairs, especially school board elections.

    Public interest is likely to be the most effective weapon against censorship in the United Kingdom also, though it is not clear how such opinion could be effectively mobilised in a British context. The United Kingdom is a deferential society as well as an 'elective dictatorship'; 3 the formerly independent and self-confident professions have been handbagged by Thatcher and her successor; the courts are less relevant where there is no written constitution or Bill of Rights. One certainly cannot depend on the integrity of vote-hungry politicians, some of whom are sympathetic to more rigorous control of dissent.

    It would be interesting to hear from members of the Colloquiurn in any country who have experienced textbook censorship or challenges from special-interest lobbies, and to know who prevailed.


    1. The Three Bears’ was objected to since it appears that Goldilocks was not punished, as she should have been, for breaking and entering, vandalising Baby Bear’s stool and stealing porridge.

    2. The list is substantial and pleasingly varied: religion, portrayals of various demographic groups, junk food, capitalism, Communism and evolution.

    3.The phrase was coined by Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor not distinguished for his progressive views.

    Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium