When a Right-Wing Attack on Textbooks Was StoppedRoundup
tags: conservatism, textbooks, McCarthyism, culture war, teaching history, William F. Buckley Jr.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which will be published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition this fall by the University of Chicago Press.
Schoolbooks have embraced Communism, threatening young Americans’ patriotism and sexual morality. And behind it all lies a shadowy cabal of big businessmen, bent on demolishing the very system that enriched them.
That’s what right-wing journalists wrote in the 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare. It’s easy to see parallels to that campaign in contemporary attacks on critical race theory and LGBTQ-themed lessons, which have become whipping boys on conservative media. Once again, the alarmists warn, students’ minds and bodies are at mortal risk. And “woke capital” (think Disney) is the culprit, conspiring with “Marxist” educators and politicians to destroy the nation.
What we tend to forget is that the McCarthy-era attacks typically fell short of their mark. Even in the white-hot atmosphere of the Cold War, most people refused to believe that school curricula had been hijacked by Communists and their alleged fellow travelers in corporate America. Public opinion back then was also influenced by an organized and well-funded counter-movement that arose to rebut these baseless claims. That history should provide some consolation—and also, perhaps, some inspiration—to the groups that are fighting present-day conspiracy theories in education.
The Cold War campaign was spearheaded by Canadian-born writer and activist Lucille Cardin Crain, who insisted that “collectivism” was eroding traditional American values of individualism and free enterprise. Crain published a newsletter that was bankrolled by William F. Buckley Sr., whose son had recently published a surprise 1951 best seller (God and Man at Yale) that charged his Ivy League professors with biting the capitalist hand that fed them. Now Buckley Jr. joined Crain and a handful of other right-wing journalists in denouncing high school textbooks—which Buckley deemed even more dangerous than the subversive material he encountered at Yale.
Their main target was the country’s most popular civics textbook, American Government, by Oregon political scientist Frank Magruder. According to Crain, the book embraced the “Statist propaganda” of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal alongside his “Communist party line” on American inequality: Poor people were “underprivileged” rather than lazy, and the federal government was their savior. Magruder also praised the United Nations, which threatened to supplant American sovereignty with Soviet-inspired “one-worldism.”