Americans always have argued over the content of schooling. In the past, political power enabled majority Americans to win those arguments and to ensure that their values and perspectives dominated in schools and schoolbooks. As Americans have become more diverse and power more dispersed, special interest groups have increasingly challenged the consensus on the content of schooling. Two case-studies illustrate that ethnic groups are involved in ideological bargaining with other groups, and that school boards find themselves increasingly in conflicts that cannot be resolved.
In the United States’ system of governance of education, political power has enabled some Americans to decide what is taught in schools; the system, however, promises other Americans that they have the right to petition and complain—and they have. Throughout us history, all Americans—those with power and those who petition—have acted in the belief that what children are taught in school and, more specifically, that what children read in school, is what they will believe and therefore is worth arguing over. Controversies over curriculum and over textbooks, where the curriculum is made visible, have been the focus of many of those arguments. In this chapter, controversies over curriculum in New York and over textbooks in California illustrate that Americans are finding it harder and harder to agree, and that new political pressure on the process is coming from groups in the culture with newfound power and pride.
Historical analysts—revisionists and others—agree that our system of school governance has resulted in schools that reflect the dominant economic and political interests of the times. From the early days of the common school, because colonial communities recognized that schooling would be a powerful force in the socialization of children, early school committees ensured that the content taught in schools functioned to shape and control the minds of students (Finkelstein 1978).
Agreement about what values should be inculcated, however, has never been universal. Controversy over curriculum and complaints about schoolbooks are as characteristic of the system as the attention to American values. Those controversies have become more common and increasingly difficult to resolve as us society has become more diverse (Tyack 1974).
In her book, America Revised, Frances FitzGerald (1979) traces changes in history textbooks and describes the interaction between the majority culture and minorities over the content of those books and over curriculum issues. Although concern and complaints about books occurred in the mid-nineteenth century and increased as compulsory education was enforced early in the twentieth, those complaints met with responsive ears only when they originated with citizens perceived to have power and prestige in the community. For instance, suggested changes coming from patriotic concerns and economic interests often met with success (FitzGerald 1979) and, over the