Memory  /  First Person

50 Years Ago, Anti-Woke Crusaders Came for My Grandfather

Christopher Rufo's polemical attacks against Critical Race Theory are not a new phenomenon. Public schools have long been a battlefield for ideological warfare.

In 1972, Search for Freedom: America and Its People came up for review at a public hearing in Texas for statewide textbook adoption. Noted Texan conservatives Mel and Norma Gabler derided the fifth-grade social studies text for several reasons. First, they alleged, it questioned American values and patriotism. Second, it encouraged civil disobedience. Third, it championed Robin Hood economics (taxing the rich and giving to the poor). Fourth, it committed blasphemy for comparing the ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King with those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Fifth, it glorified Andy Warhol and, worst of all, only mentioned George Washington in passing but devoted six-and-a-half pages to Marilyn Monroe. After the hearing, the Texas legislators agreed with the Gablers’ objections and effectively banned the textbook from Texas classrooms. Because of Texas's outsized role in textbook adoption, the textbook did not make it into any other classrooms. 

William Jay Jacobs, my grandfather, wrote the book. 

My personal connection to this history helps me see how Rufo carries the Gablers’ legacy into the twenty-first century. Acting as guardians of the American republic, Rufo and the Gablers turn complex ideas into soundbites and use those soundbites to make claims about radical indoctrination in schools. They portray this indoctrination as so dangerous that censorship is the only possible solution. The Gablers and Rufo, in their way, share Plato’s conviction that “the young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not...for which reason, maybe, we should do our utmost that the first stories that they hear should be composed as to bring the fairest lessons of virtue to their ears.” Should any story question or contradict the conservative virtues the Gablers and Rufo hold so dear, “it becomes [their] task, then, it seems, if [they] are able, to select which and what kind of natures are suited for the guardianship of a state.”

In a modern democracy, though, which “lessons of virtue” and who “select[s] which and what kind of natures” should be taught to the young are open for public debate. The Gablers and Rufo have therefore worked to manipulate ideas, and how the public perceives those ideas, to justify both conservative curricula and their roles as legitimate guardians of the common-sense virtures of the American republic.