Reading Wars and Censorship Have a Long and Shared History

This is the story of a religiously and politically conservative couple who committed to changing how children are taught in the U.S. (see HERE or HERE):

The Gablers’ views are straight-forward and comprehensive. They believe that the purpose of education is “the imparting of factual knowledge, basic skills and cultural heritage” and that education is best accomplished in schools that emphasize a traditional curriculum of reading, math, and grammar, as well as patriotism, high moral standards, dress codes, and strict discipline, with respect and courtesy demanded from all students. They feel the kind of education they value has all but disappeared, and they lay the blame at the feet of that all-purpose New Right whipping boy, secular humanism, which they believe has infiltrated the school at every level but can be recognized most easily in textbooks.

Though they have gained most of their notoriety for protests that reflected ultra-conservative political and religious views, the Gablers have consistently — and rightly, in my view — stressed basic academic skills, with particular attention to the use of intensive phonics to teach reading. Their handbook on phonics is a helpful collection of articles and references that thoroughly documents the superiority of the phonetic over the “look-say” method of reading instruction, a method whose wide use in American schools seems to me not only to negate the chief advantage of an alphabet over pictographs but also to deserve much of the blame for the depressingly high rate of functional illiteracy in this country.

But the Gablers also feel that even those students who learn to read through intensive phonics, memorize their “times tables,” diagram sentences perfectly, and win spelling bees and math contests must still cope with an educational system that is geared to undermining their morals, their individuality, their pride in America, and their faith in God and the free enterprise system. Much of this corrosive work is accomplished through textbooks in history, social sciences, health, and homemaking.

The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not, William Martin

Three things are important to note here.

First, this is from 1982 and concerns the Gablers’ activism reaching back two decades before this news article:

Norma and Mel Gabler entered the field of textbook reform twenty years ago, after their son Jim came home from school disturbed at discrepancies between the 1954 American history text his eleventh-grade class was using and what his parents had taught him. The Gablers compared his text to history books printed in 1885 and 1921 and discovered differences. “Where can you go to get the truth?” Jim asked.

The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not, William Martin

Second, the religious and conservative crusade of the Gablers represents that reading wars emphasizing the lack of phonics and the need for systematic phonics as well as conservative censorship of what students can read and learn are historical patterns found over many decades in the U.S.

The “science of reading” movement and the anti-CRT/book banning movements of the 2020s are nothing new in 20th- or 21st-century America.

And third, most controversially, phonics-centric reading wars and censorship have deep overlaps as conservative movements—as I have noted about the current literacy movements.

Compare this graphic from the 1982 article to the reading war and censorship today:

The rhetoric used by the Gablers sounds disturbingly familiar. They justified their censorship by calling for textbooks that are “‘fair, objective and patriotic'” (although these terms are contradictory). And they were unapologetically “protective of Christianity.”

The Gablers also fought for traditional (unequal) gender roles, again based on their Christian beliefs: “When texts note that the desire of women to earn pay equal to that of men, the Gablers complain that such equality could come only if women ‘abandon their highest profession— as mothers molding young lives.'”

Eerily similar to the attitudes of journalists and parents in the “science of reading” movement, the Gablers were expert at erasing actual expertise:

Norma says she has read so many textbooks that “I figure I know enough to be a Ph.D.” It is clear, however, that they have little appreciation or understanding of the life of the mind as it is encouraged and practiced in many institutions of learning. They tend to cite the Reader’s Digest as if it were the New England Journal of Medicine and to regard a single conversation with a police chief or a former drug user as an incontrovertible refutation of some point they oppose.

The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not, William Martin

The Gablers were also early versions of conservatives who frame being privileged as an oppressed group: “‘When we try to get changes made,’ Norma said, ‘it’s called censorship. When minorities and feminists do the same thing, nobody complains.'”

As we reach the end of 2022, if we care about universal public education and academic freedom as essential for a free people, we need to recognize that the essentially conservative and ideological elements of the “science of reading” and anti-CRT/censorship movements are antithetical to those foundational principles.

Reading wars and culture wars fought over education are often driven by misinformation, melodramatic narratives, and the erasure of expertise and historical context; and ultimately, these movements are destined to do far more harm than good, regardless of anyone’s sincerity or intentions.