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Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars

Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars

by Todd Gitlin

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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1995


A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1995

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Sophisticated . . . eloquent . . . strong stuff, badly in need of saying."-The New York Times Book Review

"An important book . . . a plea for bridge building, for acknowledging differences and then doing the harder work of seeing beyond them."-Newsweek

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although these two studies look at political correctness from opposite poles, both authors exhort us to replace polemics with rational thought. Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, discusses postmodern thinking in academia, the arts, the media, and our legal system. She shows how fuzzy logic has weakened the standards of objectivity, pointing out as examples English and sociology faculty members who attack the scientific method and scholarly journals filled with ideologically slanted articles. Gitlin (The Sixties, Bantam, 1987) examines the question in a broader social context, believing it has been overblown by conservatives. He also criticizes liberals for abandoning their leadership role in the fight for equal rights for all. Conservatives are now the cultural arbiters, and special-interest groups from both camps are engaging in futile power struggles while the nation limps along without a sense of mission. Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (LJ 3/15/91) and Tom Englehardt's The End of Victory Culture (LJ 1/95) complement these titles. Cheney is recommended for public and academic libraries, while Gitlin will interest academic audiences. [Cheney was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/95.]Gary D. Barber, SUNY at Fredonia Lib.
Nichols Rich
For a long time, Todd Gitlin writes, "an important part of being an American has been to take sides in culture wars over what it means to be an American." The problem with our obsession, Mr. Gitlin argues, is that "culture wars do not settle disputes." More importantly, they distract us from the critical problems we now face. What current and historical forces have led us to flay one another over questions of diversity and identity, ignoring such alarming phenomena as "the impoverishment of the cities"? Why do we allow increasingly vapid debates to drain away energies that could be applied to "the necessary discussion of what ought to be done about all the dying out there"?

Gitlin, a former president of the Students for a Democratic Society and the author of several works on recent American history, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, is also clearly concerned by the fragmentation of the democratic left in America, its collapse into truculent special interest groups more concerned with agendas than with helping to generate "a vocabulary for the common good."

Surveying several decades of our recent past, Mr. Gitlin is persuasive and exact in identifying the origins of our unwillingness to deal with broad issues. If in the end his excavation of the sources of the failure of our society to address the true causes or inequality and violence is more persuasive than his suggestions for change, and if his indictment of current conditions seems to pin a disproportionate amount of the blame on the Right, Twilight is nonetheless a very useful book, carefully detailed, provocative and, finally quite loving. "Enough bunkers! Enough of the perfection of differences," Mr. Gitlin cries. "We ought to be building bridges." --Salon

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A Dubious Battle in Oakland

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

Moreover, after much travail, the State of California had just adopted anew kindergarten-through-eighth-grade history-social science textbookseries published by Houghton Mifflin, offering little comfort to traditionalistpartisans of Columbus or, indeed, to anyone inclined to see Americanhistory as the unbroken progress of benign Europeans across a savageand underutilized continent. Of the pages devoted to historical narrativein Houghton Mifflin's fourth-grade book, Oh California!, 15 percent wentto sympathetic accounts of several California Indian nations. In theeighth-grade text, A More Perfect Union, an insert in chapter 3 entitled"Understanding Eurocentrism" cautioned against regarding Americanhistory simply as the saga of triumphant European "discovery." ("As youread more about the colonial period, try to imagine how American historymight have been different if European settlers had been more open to theways of other cultures.") The text declared: "Although their namesanddiscoveries live on in romantic stories, most of the conquistadors actedruthlessly in their search for riches and power. They treated the nativeinhabitants of America cruelly, enslaving them and often killing them.The conquistadors left a trail of slaughter as they searched for lost citiesof gold."

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

In the summer of 1990, when the Houghton Mifflin series came up forcertification by the state's curriculum commission in Sacramento, onemight have expected Christian fundamentalists, long dismayed by whatthey saw as a dangerous undermining of American verities, to rise inrighteous 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 adoptionproceedings. But on this occasion, although one Christian fundamentalist,wielding the psychological jargon that has become routine on theseoccasions, did maintain that the new textbooks "could be very damagingto the self-esteem of a fundamentalist Christian child" because they impliedthat fundamentalists are "emotional and hysterical," the complaintwas easily addressed, was not followed up, and had no great effect.

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

CURE pointed to some genuine instances of establishment bias, andto a number of places where the books were uncritica a Dick-and-Janeishway, even arguably jingoistic in a traditional civics-book manner.They did find occasional passages in the books that could reasonably beread as subtle or not-so-subtle disparagements of foreign and minoritycultures—for example, a European's jocular account of lengthy Chinesenames. They rightly objected to a traditional account of Thanksgiving forfailing to mention that Puritans and other colonists killed Indians. Theychastised the third-grade book for calling John Wesley Powell "one of thefirst people to explore the Grand Canyon" when, of course, he was one ofthe first white people to do so. They pointed to a literature excerpt thatcontained the line: "She had blue eyes and white skin, like an angel."They argued that telling the children to make simulated Kwakiutl maskstrivialized the spiritual qualities of Kwakiutl ceremonies—though theyneglected to note that textbooks customarily trivialize the spiritual qualitiesof everybody's ceremonies. Where a teacher's edition referred to helpfulpolice, CURE wrote: "In many communities, specifically communitiesof color, police officers are regarded not as helpers, but as people to fear."

But CURE and other critics did themselves no favors by interspersingvalid criticisms among scores of indiscriminate ones. The majority ofCURE's charges were trivial and hypersensitive. They were so eager tofind ethnocentrism in these texts that they seemed to quarrel with thenotion that there was or is a dominant American culture. They objected tothe profusion of American flags in the texts' pages. They objected that inthe kindergarten book's illustrations people of color looked "just likewhites, except for being tinted or colored in," and that when photographsof children of color appeared, "there was no discussion of their respectiveethnic identities and specific contributions." When the books singled outminorities' customs, CURE saw disapproval; when the books didn't singlethem out, they saw neglect. They saw cultural bias against Cambodiawhen the second-grade book mentioned that a Cambodian child living inBoston 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-gradebook traced an African-American family back one generation lessthan a family of German descent, and chastised the book, written forseven-year-olds, when it failed to discuss the details of sharecropping.They denounced a passage on the baseball player Roberto Clemente fornot mentioning that Jackie Robinson opened the way for him, and objectedto a list of inventions because all were invented by white men.They criticized an exercise inviting students to write a personal story froma slave's point of view, on the ground that it is impossible "to imaginebeing enslaved."

In Sacramento, however, CURE's and related objections grabbed themighty attention of the media. So did flamboyant statements like that ofan 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. Suchclaims were supported by the Black Caucus of the state assembly. Sowere Chinese Americans' complaints that the books trivialized the exploitationof the Chinese laborers imported to build the transcontinental railroads.There were Muslim objections to a description of Mohammed—strictlyforbidden in Islam—as well as to a suggestion in a teacher'sedition that a student play the part of Mohammed in a skit. Anotherstrong objection was that in the world history volume, a diagram of acamel and its trappings was used to illustrate the "Moment in Time"capsule contained in the chapter on "The Roots of Islam"—the onlyanimal used for such a purpose.

Nowadays, people of color have no monopoly on hypersensitivity. TheCalifornia Jewish Community Relations Council brought its own list ofoffenses against the sixth-grade book, A Message of Ancient Days. Theyargued 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 oflaws and rituals, invidiously compared to Christians with their belief inkindness and love. They objected to the phrase "Old Testament," wishingit changed to "Hebrew Bible"; they deplored one lesson title, "An Age ofTransition," and a reference to "His [Jesus'] Resurrection." They objectedto the book's version of the story of the Good Samaritan, on the groundsthat the bad neighbors were identified as Jews. Unremarked, however, onthe same page, the source of this parable was referred to as "a popularJewish teacher named Jesus."

The protesters were unimpressed by the fact that the seventh-gradeworld 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 InstructionBill Honig later pointed out, where a previously adopted worldhistory text had devoted only one of its forty chapters to African historyand ancient American Indian cultures combined, one-eighth of the newseventh-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 thatthe textbooks frequently represented a radical departure from the historytaught in earlier decades. The same seventh-grade book that offendedsome Muslims with the camel picture also noted that "Christian andMuslim sources portrayed the crusaders differently," and declared: "Traditionally,we learn history from the point of view of the winners." (Ofcourse, the crusaders were losers in the short run, but Europe's storytellershave traditionally awarded them the righteous victory and not dwelton the embarrassing denouement.)

For their part, the authors plausibly defended the accuracy of theirtext on the great majority of points but agreed to a list of corrections onothers—John Wesley Powell as the first white man to travel down theGrand 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 bythe suggestion that a student interview a Muslim scholar. Gary B. Nash,the UCLA historian who was one of the authors of the series, later acknowledgedto me that the offending camel was "a mistake. We thought itwould be neat to show how an animal could be a means of diffusion ofculture. 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 ofthe Arab as a `camel jockey.' The camel will go as soon as we revice theseventh-grade book." One sentence disliked by the Christian Right wasrevised. As for the Jewish objections, "Old Testament" became "HebrewBible," "An Age of Transition" became "Religious Developments," andan insert was added on developments in Judaism after Christ. The story ofthe Good Samaritan was modified to note that the man beaten by robberswas also a Jew. But some corrections were inconsistent. Many of thereferences to the Israelites' "god" were shifted to the upper case, butmany—at times on the same page—were not. (Christianity's God was nowconsigned to the lower case only once.)

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

Opponents now turned to the local adoption proceedings. Over thenext few months, Los Angeles and San Francisco school boards, amongmany others, held their own contentious hearings, and ended up approvingthe Houghton Mifflin series. The opponents' only victory in a big citycame in Oakland, the sixth-largest school district in the state. One consequencewas that when Columbus Day rolled around in 1992, Oakland'sfourth-, fifth-, and seventh-grade teachers had no textbooks at all to helpthem teach about California's Indians or, indeed, about anyone else.

The textbook battles took place in circumstances that were primed forrancor and inauspicious for education. Years of ficeal crisis had takentheir toll on resources available for public services in California. A taxrevolt kindled with the passing of the 1978 citizens' initiative calledProposition 13 had accelerated with the passing of several sequels. Theresult had been the slashing of the revenues available to local governments,and state funds had failed to make up the shortfalls. In addition, adownturn in California's economy not only worsened the social conditionsthat demoralize children but cut state school funds, gutted art, music, andother academic programs, closed libraries, and crowded the classrooms.In Oakland, for example, teachers were routinely responsible for morethan thirty students at a time. Between 1969 and 1994, California slid inper-pupil school allocations from among the top ten states to forty-first.Still, the state had allocated money for new textbooks. Moreover, BillHonig, the energetic reformer who was the state's top school official, wascommitted to a curriculum that would take account of the multiple culturesof America. Long before the time came to purchase new textbooks,Honig had established a commission to draw up a new "framework"—aslate of specifications that publishers would have to meet by 1990 toqualify for statewide approval.

That framework, approved in 1987, was a brave attempt to square thepedagogical circle. It required that grade school history be taught with anemphasis on the multiplicity of historical experiences while stressing the"centrality of Western civilization." At the same time, it insisted thathistory be integrated with social studies and literature, and told as acoherent story. It required that the K-8 curriculum include three fullyears of world history—one of which was to cover the ancient world—alongwith three years of American history and one of California history.It insisted that the study of religion be integrated into the historicalcurriculum. (Perhaps it was this provision that placated the right wing.)The framework's coauthors were Charlotte Crabtree, a professor of educationat UCLA, and Diane Ravitch, a professor of history at TeachersCollege of Columbia University, a leader of the fight against "Afrocentrism"in New York State's curriculum, subsequently assistant secretaryof education in the Bush administration, and a political lightning rod."Diane Ravitch was chosen to do a sneaky end-run," Toni Cook, thenvice president (and later president) of the Oakland Board of Education,told me later. "She wanted to put things in the books which were verykindred 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 salesand offers a market of more than $50 million, the $20 million cost of anew series was such that the only publisher willing to meet the deadlinewith an entire line of new books was Houghton Mifflin, which lacked ahistory series of its own. Houghton Mifflin linked up with a group oftextbook entrepreneurs called Ligature Inc. Ligature's education expertswanted 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-whitesegments, visuals dripping down and across the pages, full-pagedrawings encapsulating "Moments in Time." When they showed aprototype segment to focus groups of California teachers, the teachersapproved.

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

In any event, with the books accepted at the state level, Gary Nashthought the worst was over. He had not anticipated much flak in the firstplace. He was, after all, well known as a multiculturalist, as well as one ofthe most prolific American social historians of a cohort trained in the1960s and devoted to reconstructing American history, in the words of anearly revisionist slogan, "from the bottom up." Nash's books includedRed, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America, which, in the wordsof his introduction, "proceed[ed] from the belief that to cure the historicalamnesia that has blotted out so much of our past we must reexamineAmerican history as the interaction of many peoples from a wide range ofcultural backgrounds over a period of many centuries." In 1970, when(under Governor Ronald Reagan) the regents of the University of Californiafired the activist Angela Davis from her philosophy post at UCLA,Nash headed her defense committee, which raised enough money to payher salary. That same year, he helped redesign the introductory course inAmerican history at UCLA, turning it into the history of an interaction ofpeoples. He had already written a popular textbook for eleventh-gradeAmerican history that many districts, including Oakland's, had adoptedunopposed.

At fifty-nine, the sandy-haired, neatly bearded Nash was wearing awork shirt and stonewashed jeans when I spoke to him at his comfortablePacific Palisades home. The art on the wall was Mexican, the lunch wasburritos. Nash was now president-elect of the Organization of AmericanHistorians—with the support of colleagues of all colors—and was beingconsidered for the position of head of the National Endowment for theHumanities. During a four-hour period, his phone rang five times forconversations 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 spokedeliberately, in an unruffled tone, until one of two subjects came up. Thefirst: the downgrading of ordinary people in the old-fashioned version ofhistory. Then he accelerated. "What does it tell our kids, to say that onlygreat men make history?" He swept passionately into an example of aperson he wanted to write about when the Houghton Mifflin books werefirst being outlined: Fred Korematsu, an ex-welder and high school graduatewho had tried to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II andwho, when the authorities came to intern him along with his Japanese-Americancompatriots, refused to comply, was arrested, tried, convicted,and appealed his internment all the way up to the Supreme Court. "Ortake 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 evenget to Europe until February. Just by doing it this way, we broke themold."

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

Nowhere was the outcome more shocking than in Oakland. With anelected school board composed of four African Americans, two ChineseAmericans, and one white leftist; a school superintendent of African-Americanand Latino descent; and a teaching staff almost half nonwhite(and largely left-of-center in disposition) responsible for teaching a studentbody that in 1990 was 46.9 percent black, 24 percent white, 18.8percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 15.2 percent Hispanic, Oaklandmight have been the very model for what is called, these days, multiculturaleducation. Moreover, school administrators had decided that, for thefirst time, teachers at the various grade levels would make their own textrecommendations, and for the most part, the teachers liked the newbooks. So Nash was not prepared for the eruption that greeted him when,on March 18, 1991, he flew to Oakland to address an open meetingsponsored by the Berkeley and Oakland school boards at Claremont MiddleSchool in a middle-class, largely white section of Oakland near theBerkeley city line. (The Oakland and Berkeley school boards were debatingthe books simultaneously.) All the seats were taken long before themeeting began and the room was overflowing with more than a hundredpeople. Some were parents, but at least as many, by various accounts,were ethnic studies students, mainly black, from San Francisco StateUniversity across the bay. The hall was festooned with placards bearingslogans like STOP POISONING YOUNG MINDS! Mary Hoover, a professor ofethnic studies at San Francisco State (now a dean at Howard University),was Nash's principal antagonist, accusing the books of "sheer Eurocentricarrogance." Hoover focused on a passage in A Message of AncientDays in which an early "naked dark-skinned" human on the east Africanplains carries a "bloody bone" that "oozes . . . red marrow." Hoovermaintained that there was an implication that these early Africans werecannibals.

"She misrepresented the books," says Steven Weinberg, an eighth-gradehistory teacher who, when I spoke to him, had spent twenty-fouryears at Claremont Middle School and supported the adoption of theHoughton Mifflin books. "I said, they're not talking about cannibalism.They're carnivorous." (By the time the books were published, the "bloodymarrow 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, "theywere like something out of the eugenics movement. It was as if they wereworse than Goebbels. There was cheering and yelling. It was really ugly.The attacks on Gary Nash were ridiculous and ad hominem. He wastrying to establish his credentials, and he said he had been on the AngelaDavis defense committee. Someone got up and said, `We have to rememberthat there were plenty of people on that who did not have AngelaDavis'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 theeditorial board of Socialzst Review who now teaches at the private CollegePreparatory School in Oakland. Chotiner had accompanied a friend, anOakland curriculum official, to the meeting because, he told me, "GaryNash 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 andblacks, the new social history. It was a pilgrimage for me." Chotiner wasshocked, therefore, to find that "not one speaker was willing to give himor the editors the benefit of the doubt. No one said, `I like this about thebook, but on the other hand I don't like that.' Instead, the objectionsranged from the thoughtful to the silly to the scurrilous." The point aboutthe camel Chotiner agreed was thoughtful. An example of the silly wasthe objection that a section on black history in one volume didn't focus onJackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. (1his particularvolume stopped at the year 1900, Nash responded.) An example of thescurrilous was the contemptuous charge from an African-American studentthat 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 aracist had no business trying to teach her."

Chotiner estimated that there were twenty or thirty of the silly andscurrilous attacks. "In most cases, bad motives were assumed, and Garyand the editors were the enemy. People would have spoken in the sametone if the authors had been George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and BullConnor. There were no attempts to bridge gaps, to find common ground. Iwas really stunned by the anger. It wasn't even an anger of betrayal—`Howdare you do this when we share something in common?' The angerwas, `This is just what we expected.' I was completely intimidated bytheir 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 youasked me, Why not? Were they going to beat me up? No. Were they goingto slash my tires? No. Throw a rock through my window? No. I think Iwould have been heckled, and I don't think my comments would havemade a difference."

"I wasn't expecting a dispute in which the critics declaim but theydon't point to evidence," Nash said later. There was, for example, thecharge that the books "trivialized" slavery. The seventh-grade book includes,among other descriptions of the horrors of slavery and the enduranceof slaves, a graphic two-page passage from Frederick Douglass'sautobiography. "Just fifteen years ago," Nash says, "the textbooks werefull of happy slaves grateful to have been lifted up out of barbarianAfrica. Getting an accurate account of slavery into the textbooks is thewhole point of my career." He was, moreover, incredulous when a Japanese-Americanwoman stood up to charge that the books trivialized thesuffering of her people during World War II internment, saying: "We wantour history written by our people." In truth, the seventh-grade book doessweep through its discussion of the relocation camps in a few lines. Butthese lines call the camps "prison-like" and point out that the interneeswere forcibly dispossessed (in a section entitled "The Ongoing Strugglefor Justice"). In the fourth-grade book on California history, lesson 1 ofthe chapter "California in Wartime" begins with two pages on the internments—almosthalf the entire lesson.

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

A Novel



Copyright © 1998 W. T. Tyler.All rights reserved.

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