Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Challenges to the Public School Curriculum: New Targets and Strategies

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Challenges to the Public School Curriculum: New Targets and Strategies

Article excerpt

EFFORTS to make fundamental changes in public schooling for the 21st century face a number of obstacles.(1) Among the significant threats to these efforts are challenges from conservative citizen groups objecting to particular instructional strategies and materials. Some of the best-known conservative groups are listed in the box on page 59.(2) Challenges by these groups to the public school curriculum are increasing dramatically; according to People for the American Way, the number of reported incidents was 50% higher in 1991-92 than in the previous school year.(3)

The conservative groups' most common complaint is that certain curricular materials or activities advance anti-Christian, anti-American doctrine, often referred to as "secular humanism" or, more recently, "New Age theology." Materials that encourage students to think critically, to examine alternatives, or to clarify values -- in other words, to become more active learners -- are alleged to represent this anti-theistic belief.(4) The conservative groups contend that secular humanism and New Age theology are characterized by reliance on science and human nature instead of God and the Bible.(5) Humanistic, New Age materials and practices allegedly are founded on such doctrinal cornerstones as mysticism, occultism, globalism, moral relativism, internationalism, and hedonism.(6) "Secular humanism" and "New Age" have become catchall phrases, used by critics -- much as "communism" was used in the 1950s and 1960s -- to refer to everything that is considered a threat to traditional American values and institutions.(7)

Curriculum challenges are not a new phenomenon. However, recent efforts in this regard are particularly noteworthy, not only because of their increasing frequency, but also because of the shift in targets and the change in strategies used to influence the content of the public school curriculum.


There have been subtle but important changes in the targets of curriculum challenges. Until the late 1970s the targets were usually individual books, such as The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. Those making the charges were often parents acting on their own. While the list of individual books under attack continues to grow, recent protests -- often orchestrated by national conservative groups -- are more likely to focus on entire textbook series and components of the instructional program.

Currently, the most widely challenged textbook series is the Impressions reading series published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. This 15-volume anthology for elementary grades contains selections by such noted authors as A. A. Milne, Maurice Sendak, and C. S. Lewis. The series, used by school districts in 34 states, embraces the whole-language approach to reading instruction. This approach is grounded in the belief that children learn to read as they learn to speak. Accordingly, the series focuses on reading for meaning, with selections that are believed to be of interest to children in the elementary grades. The conservative groups allege that the selections are depressing, morbid, and violent; invade students, privacy; attack traditional values; and promote Satanism, mysticism, and the occult.(8) Most of the challenges focus on the series' subject matter rather than on its pedagogical approach, but the controversy associated with Impressions may have implications for the future of whole-language instruction.

Because of California's influence on the textbook market nationwide, it is not surprising that the conservative groups have focused their attacks on the Impressions series in this state. Two closely aligned groups, Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) and the National Association of Christian Educators (NACE), both based in Costa Mesa, have distributed statewide mailings condemning the Impressions series. One letter begins with the following passage: "Before you read this letter, I want to warn you that it contains shocking and graphic quotes from a children's reading series used in classrooms across America. …

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