The Guardians Who Slumbereth Not

Meet Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview. They want to tell your children what to read.

Nothing about the pinkish brick home on the oak-shaded street in Longview distinguished it from its neighbors or suggested that it housed one of the most controversial educational organizations in America. No marker, not even a doorbell plaque, indicated that this was the home of Mel and Norma Gabler and their nonprofit textbook-screening organization, Educational Research Analysts—though a construction-paper stop sign in the window, perhaps placed there by a grandchild, served as an apt symbol of the activities within. A neat young woman met me at the door, led me past a bookshelf crammed with copies of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic into a kitchen-family room, and introduced me to Norma Gabler, who was dressed in the weekday uniform of middle-aged Texas church ladies: a vested pantsuit with a polka-dot blouse. In a few moments Mel Gabler came in from another room, looking less like a celebrated educational gadfly than the retired Exxon clerk he is. I had seen their pictures and read about them for years, but it was still disarming to realize that this quiet man padding about in house slippers and this cheery woman carrying on about a device that makes one cup of brewed coffee—“It is the most amazing thing we have come up with”—are the same folk who cause textbook publishers to quake with anxiety, liberal educators to fume with indignation, and indignant conservative parents to regard them as heroes in the struggle against humanism, communism, evolution, and moral relativity.

We don’t censor anything,” Norma said, raising the issue I had planned to get into only after covering some less sensitive matters. “We don’t care what the publishers put out. We just don’t have to buy everything they put out. I don’t think that’s wrong. If you have a choice between books, why not get the best?” Critics of the Gablers dismiss that defense as sophistry, insisting that censorship is not defined by the point at which it occurs in the communication process. But whatever one calls their attempts to control or heavily influence the selection and content of textbooks that our children will use in school, the Gablers go about their work with such dedication, thoroughness, and persistence as to make plausible the claim by one censorship expert that they are “the two most powerful people in education today.”

Norma and Mel Gabler entered the field of textbook reform twenty years ago, after their son Jim came home from school disturbed at discrepancies between the 1954 American history text his eleventh-grade class was using and what his parents had taught him. The Gablers compared his text to history books printed in 1885 and 1921 and discovered differences. “Where can you go to get the truth?” Jim asked.

Well,” Norma told me, “I’m Irish, and that got my Irish up.” When the Gablers approached the superintendent, he explained that the school was permitted to purchase only those textbooks that had been screened and placed on an approved list by the State Board of Education. Then, in one of those casual comments that change history, he suggested, “Why don’t you go to Austin? That’s where you can have some impact.” Norma did indeed go to Austin, and for the past two decades few people have had greater impact on what American schoolchildren read than Mel and Norma Gabler.

Although 21 other states also use a statewide textbook adoption system, Texas is the nation’s largest single purchaser of textbooks, and that gives the Gablers enormous influence. Making the Texas list is practically a guarantee of profit for a publisher; failure to make it may doom a book, or a whole series of books, to extinction. Thus most publishers are understandably sensitive to pressures to make their books acceptable for use in this state’s 1100 public school districts.

Under the Texas system, the State Board of Education issues a textbook proclamation each spring, announcing the subjects and grade levels for which new books will be selected that year and inviting publishers to submit any books they wish to have considered. The board also appoints a fifteen-member committee, at least eight of whom must be classroom teachers in the pertinent subjects, to evaluate the books that are submitted. A list of these books can be obtained by anyone who requests it, and the books themselves are available at regional centers throughout the state. Citizens having objections to any books are invited to file written “bills of particulars” containing their specific complaints. Positive comments or general statements of disapproval are neither sought nor accepted. Near the end of the summer, the textbook committee meets to hear objections from citizens who have filed such bills and the publishers’ replies, then sends its recommendations, which may include as many as five books per subject, to the state commissioner of education. The commissioner considers the textbook committee’s list and may strike books from it (but not add to it) before submitting it to the board. Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency scrutinizes the recommended books, the committee’s reviews, and the citizens’ objections and decides whether to request that publishers make changes in their texts. After a last round of hearings, the board makes its final decision. Then, following a similar set of procedures, local school boards decide which of the approved books they will select for use in their schools.

Norma Gabler went to hearing for the first time in 1962—and she went without Mel. “I had never traveled anywhere in my life by myself,” she explains, “but Mel said, ‘Honey, you’ve got to go, because I can’t.’ I said, ‘What will I do when I get there?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know, but you can do something.’ I was just going to do it that one year, but it was just something that went on and on.”

Mrs. Gabler recalls that in the early years she was sometimes treated badly by both publishers and textbook committee members. But she took her lumps, protested vociferously when the committee violated its own rules to give her opponents an advantage,

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