The Great Textbook Wars

Marist's Trey Kay to present his award-winning radio documentary as part of a look at the politics of what's taught in schools

POUGHKEEPSIE - In 1974 in Kanawha County, West Virginia, schools were hit by dynamite, buses were riddled with bullets, and coal mines were shut down by protests. The focus of the violence and unrest? The introduction to the local schools of a new set of textbooks. This fight over what children are taught in our schools has been called "the first shot in the culture wars."textbook sign

It is the subject of Marist journalism instructor and West Virginia native Trey Kay's The Great Textbook Wars. The 2009 Peabody Award-winning radio documentary will anchor an evening of events, starting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, examining the ways in which the political battles over public school textbooks continue to be fought today, nearly 40 years later. The program will take place in the Nelly Goletti Theatre in Marist's Student Center. It is free and open to the public

Kay was a twelve-year-old student in Kanawha County, when controversy erupted in the community over the school board's adoption of new language arts textbooks. Supporters of the new books thought they would introduce students to new ideas about multiculturalism. Opponents felt the books undermined traditional American values. 

"We realized that the controversy extended well beyond the Kanawha Valley," Kay recalls, "when we saw Walter Cronkite speaking about our Appalachian home on the evening news and when political operatives from the newly-formed Heritage Foundation came to our region to rally an emerging Christian conservative movement." 

Nearly 35 years later, Kay was inspired to revisit the textbook war after watching related issues play out during the 2008 presidential election.  

"At that time, I recall reading a column in a national magazine that referenced the Kanawha textbook controversy when explaining the antipathy felt for Barack Obama by white working-class West Virginians," Kay says. "While speaking with folks back home, they’d say things like: 'When I first saw Sarah Palin, I thought, ‘Alice Moore is back!'' referring to the conservative school board member who started the 1974 textbook protest. textbook protester

A 7 p.m. playing of the 59-minute piece, which also won a national Edward R. Murrow Award and a duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, will be followed by a question-and-answer session involving a panel of Marist religion, education, political science, and journalism faculty members. In addition to Kay, panel members include John Allan Knight, assistant professor of religious studies; Lynn Mills Eckert, associate professor & political science chair; and Maureen Fitzgerald-Riker, assistant professor of education. Keith Strudler, communication chair and director of the Center for Sports Communication, will moderate.

The documentary listening session will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a reception, which will feature a traveling historical exhibit, Books and Beliefs: The Kanawha County Textbook War, based on material unearthed in the research for the radio documentary. The exhibit consists of four large panels accompanied by a repeating 22-minute sound and video presentation. Refreshments will be served.