Preview: The Great Textbook War

kanawha-textbook-image.jpg It’ll be impossible not to think about current events when you listen to a documentary on Minnesota Public Radio tomorrow about a controversy over textbooks that erupted in West Virginia in 1974.

It was a battle over textbooks, but the underpinnings included religion, racism, and politics. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

In Kanawha County, W.Va., the school board received new textbooks for its elementary schools, but they became the staging ground for a battle between liberal and conservative values. It grew to include a labor dispute after parents refused to send their kids to schools. Coal miners and chemical plant engineers walked off the job. Then schools were firebombed and dynamited. Snipers aimed at school buses. Crossed were burned on lawns. And a preacher cited Bible verse to explain why that’s what God wanted. (See video)

By the end of the program, which airs on MPR’s Midday tomorrow, you may be wondering whether this is the past, or the future?

Last year, many of those involved in the “war” held a reunion. A comment, reported by West Virginia Public Radio, raised an intriguing question: Have we lost the ability to work things out?


Calvin Skaggs sees parallels between 1974 and today, too. Skaggs made the documentary, “With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right,” which featured the textbook strike.

“These textbooks were introducing public school students to ideas about God and sex and society which their parents were not going to like. That’s how it got started. It rippled until it was about everything,” Skaggs said.

“If this textbook controversy had happened 20 years earlier, the community would have worked it out. There was a polarization beginning then that has absolutely infected our country now and frankly, frightens me,” he said.

You can listen to that full panel discussion here.

After tomorrow’s broadcast, we’ll hold a forum in the UBS Forum and consider another question: What should children learn in school?

Colleague Michael Caputo will be holding an online discussion while the documentary is on the air, I’ll be live-blogging the follow-up discussion at noon.