Who’s Playing Politics with Kids?


Parents and politicians who needlessly expended nervous energy earlier this month over President Obama's completely apolitical speech to school children would be wise to redirect their concerns to the real battle being waged to influence public school curriculums.

The notion that the president would use his brief televised appearance to foist what some called a left-wing agenda on young viewers was not only far-fetched, it was particularly ironic considering the extent to which conservatives are aggressively seeking to shape the content of books used in schools nationwide.

Frustrated by their loss of the White House and the Congress, and apparently empowered by conservative broadcasters, Republican women's groups have redoubled their efforts to raise money for school libraries - usually for the purchase of books from a particular list of approved conservative titles. The effort is part of the Mamie Eisenhower Library Project (MELP), launched back in 1961.

MELP's latest list of recommended titles makes more interesting reading than the books themselves.

"Bamboozled: How Americans are Being Exploited by the Lies of the Liberal Agenda," by Angela McGlowan, a former Miss Magnolia and Miss District of Columbia turned Fox News commentator, is a book school kids would love. "Party of Defeat: How Democrats and Radicals Undermined America's War on Terror Before and After 9/11," by Ben Johnson and David Horowitz, is another must. Horowitz happens to have a new book out called, "One Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America's Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy."

The list of books MELP recommends for school libraries is published by GOP women on Web sites in several states including Virginia where the president's speech to students originated. While Obama's content was politically benign, the conservative effort to influence school curriculum is politically blatant. Classrooms as well as libraries have been targeted - primarily in the 20 states where adoption committees set statewide standards for textbooks.

Texas, one of the nation's largest single buyers of school books and thus highly influential among publishers, is ground zero in the curriculum war. The Republican-controlled Board of Education in Austin is currently determining the outline for US history that will be used over the next decade. According to the Houston Chronicle's report on the first draft, "high school students would learn about such significant individuals and milestones of conservative politics as Newt Gingrich and the rise of the Moral Majority - but nothing about liberals."

In an odd way, conservatives are taking a page from the progressives' book. Nationwide, and especially in California, liberal forces have made considerable strides in removing stereotypes, particularly about women and blacks, from school textbooks. Equally successful, and often controversial, has been the campaign to include discussion of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender issues in school texts and classrooms.

But while it can be said that both political camps recognize the powerful nature of school materials, their strategies for influencing curriculums differ markedly. In many communities, the liberal effort is to encourage a broader examination of issues, while at times going overboard in a desire for "political correctness." The conservative approach is to rewrite basic treatments of science and history, while also filling library shelves with books containing heavy doses of political propaganda.

The book donation programs are particularly shrewd. Printed pages bound between two covers are revered by many Americans - as if falsehoods and exaggerations magically become truth in book form. To put it another way: Who would object to a book? What's wrong with reading a range of opinions?

The answers lie in the fact that among early lessons taught in most schools is that books are to be studied and accepted at face value. Indeed, those same assumptions often make Internet research perilous for kids, who find it impossible to separate "published" fact from fiction.

As more school systems shift from printed texts to digital books, the risks of distortion will increase. Already a new generation of Wiki-style textbooks is being designed to allow teachers to delete passages they disagree with, while adding new ones of their own.

In his speech to students, President Obama explained that he was "working hard" to get them the books they need. He didn't mention the war being waged to influence the content of those books, but it's a fight that is likely to increase in intensity.

The outcome of the book battle, not a pep talk from the president, is what parents should really be worried about.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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