Texas, textbooks and culture wars

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By Douglas Imbrogno
The Sunday Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Textbooks were famously a line in the sand in culture wars that shook Kanawha County in the early 1970s. Trey Kay documented "The Great Textbook War," the title of his award-winning public radio documentary about the subject, which was honored with the Peabody, Murrow and duPont awards.

Textbooks remain a flashpoint for all kinds of cultural and social issues and Kay is back with a new radio documentary, "The Long Game: Texas' Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom."

The documentary will be broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio at 9 p.m., Nov. 7. But first the Charleston native will present a special free listening session of the program at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the University of Charleston's Riggleman Hall, followed by a panel discussion with Kay and Calandra Lockhart, chair of UC's education department.

"The story of the Kanawha textbook controversy was an example of where the nation was in the early '70s regarding culture wars and education," Kay said. "Texas is a great example of where those battles are today."

The Texas Board of Education has been the locus of discussions and debates that might surprise some, such as "cutting out Thomas Jefferson because they didn't like his views on separation of church and state," said Kay.

As in his first documentary, Kay said he has striven to fairly present both sides of what is really "two different mindsets" about culture and education.

"One side believes in an ultimate truth, kind of like a fundamentalist view of the world. Another side believes in a more relative or changing and evolving truth. Those two different mindsets, it's going to be very difficult for them to agree and find any common ground to agree on how to choose educational curriculum for children.

"They have a very different vision of what America is and what America should be."

Is this an intractable subject, then, or are there ways to hold a civil discussion? His documentary is just such an attempt, said Kay.

"I tried not to be too judgmental. I try to let either side present their best argument. I think that hopefully having a dialogue and encouraging people to come outside their echo chambers and have a discussion about this is a hopeful thing to do."

Not an easy goal, he concedes.

"Since 'The Great Textbook War,' I've been trying to figure out a way to encourage people to engage in a respectful debate beyond the culture war divide -- but that's easier said than done."

Texas is a significant battleground for several reasons, among them that the state purchases a huge number of textbooks and so influences the market, although that is changing somewhat as digital publication changes textbook marketing. The tussles also take place all across the curriculum.

"In Texas, they have fights over everything from reading to biology to algebra and they break down over culture war lines."

Kay tries to be fair in presenting these divisions.

"I think there are good people on both sides of the Texas debates. It's my hope that people can rise to their higher selves and be respectful in that debate so we can find a good solution for the children of Texas but also the children of America.

"But it's a tall order because of this divide I'm talking about -- between those who believe in an ultimate truth and those who believe in a relative evolving truth."

WANT TO GO? "The Long Game: Texas' Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom," will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, at the University of Charleston's Riggleman Hall. Admission is free.