Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Why "Just Teach The Facts" Doesn't Work (A Message from the Past)

I want to direct your attention to an old article--forty years old--that provided a valuable and even-handed look at Mel and Norma Gabler, a couple that became the driving force in Texas behind pushing a conservative bent to that state's textbooks, and thereby the textbooks of much of the nation. Because this article, though old, speaks loudly to our current situation.

The article (from Texas Monthly's November 1982 issue) is a reminder that the grievances of today's "culture warriors" are not new (the group they founded, Education Research Analysts, is still operating), but in taking a close at the Gablers (who really were a couple of ordinary citizens who ended up running a major activist movement out of their home-- Norma Gabler was an actual grandmom), writer Wiliam Martin offers some important insights into the problems with the Gabler world view.

The Gablers’ views are straight-forward and comprehensive. They believe that the purpose of education is “the imparting of factual knowledge, basic skills and cultural heritage” and that education is best accomplished in schools that emphasize a traditional curriculum of reading, math, and grammar, as well as patriotism, high moral standards, dress codes, and strict discipline, with respect and courtesy demanded from all students. They feel the kind of education they value has all but disappeared, and they lay the blame at the feet of that all-purpose New Right whipping boy, secular humanism, which they believe has infiltrated the school at every level but can be recognized most easily in textbooks.

Yeah, it was secular humanism forty years ago, the critical race theory of an earlier age.

But the Gablers also feel that even those students who learn to read through intensive phonics, memorize their “times tables,” diagram sentences perfectly, and win spelling bees and math contests must still cope with an educational system that is geared to undermining their morals, their individuality, their pride in America, and their faith in God and the free enterprise system. Much of this corrosive work is accomplished through textbooks in history, social sciences, health, and homemaking.

I'm going to remind you that the article was written in 1982.

The Gablers seem to believe not only that the proper subject of history is facts rather than concepts but also that all the essential pertinent facts are well known and should be taught as they were in older textbooks, in a clear chronological arrangement with a tone that is “fair, objective and patriotic.”

They were also upset about the elevation of certain Civil Rights movement figures, what they saw as attacks on religious thought, and as to sexual issues, "their view of the family falls into the Father-Mother-Dick-Jane-Spot-and-Puff mold, with no doubt as to who does what." Women who want equal pay, the Gablers argued, were abandoning their highest profession--motherhood. Sex education = bad. They helped push the rules that said evolution had to be clearly labeled in texts as "just a theory.

Values? Martin quotes from a Gabler pamphlet:

“To the vast majority of Americans,” it asserts, “the terms ‘values’ and ‘morals’ mean one thing, and one thing only; and that is the Christian-Judeo morals, values, and standards as given to us by God through His Word written in the Ten Commandments and the Bible….After all, according to history these ethics have prescribed the only code by which civilizations can effectively remain in existence!”

And they bristled at the invasion of privacy in asking students about opinions of, well, anything.

Where the article gets really interesting is where Martin starts to consider the effects of the Gabler point of view (which contains more familiar moments)

A major result of the Gablers’ misunderstanding of a humanistic approach to learning is a stunted and barren philosophy of education. In a manner typical of those distrustful of the intellectual enterprise, they take pleasure in scoring points against the professionals; Norma says she has read so many textbooks that “I figure I know enough to be a Ph.D.” It is clear, however, that they have little appreciation or understanding of the life of the mind as it is encouraged and practiced in many institutions of learning. They tend to cite the Reader’s Digest as if it were the New England Journal of Medicine and to regard a single conversation with a police chief or a former drug user as an incontrovertible refutation of some point they oppose.

And this next part really gets at the essence of why this "just teach the facts that are the One True Thing that has never changed" approach doesn't serve human beings well:

In general, they know precisely where they stand but have difficulty dealing with a question that originates from different premises. Norma showed me a ninth-grade history book that observed that the route most likely taken by Israelites in their exodus from Egypt would have been across a swamp known as the Sea of Reeds. The book adds: “IT may be that the Sea of Reeds was later called the Red Sea by mistake.” Norma found this highly amusing: “Can you just imagine pharaoh’s army, with all his horses and all his men, completely disappearing into a swamp? Now, that’s a miracle!” I pointed out to her that many scholars feel the biblical story may be an embellished, rather than strictly accurate, account of Israel’s escape from slavery. I noted that there is no record in Egyptian history of such a catastrophic event, and that the Hebrew Bible does indeed say “Reed Sea,” not “Red Sea.” She faltered, then said: “But still…okay…what happened to pharaoh’s army?”

In similar fashion, questions posed by members of the textbook committee at the August hearings characteristically received oblique answers or a puzzled “I don’t think I understand the question.” That, of course, is the point: when one regards education as simply the ingestion of facts and not the investigation and analysis of ironies, ambiguities, uncertainties, and contradictions, one will be far less likely either to understand the question or to provide a useful answer. And that kind of trained incapacity will endanger the vitality and ultimately the survival of treasured forms of religious, political, social, and economic life.

Emphasis mine, because yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Too long for a t-shirt, but I'd gladly put a poster of it in classrooms across the country. You can object to the narrow Gabler view on moral or ethical grounds, but there's also a practical problem--it's a very ineffective way to engage with the world.

The Gablers were a piece of work--

Norma Gabler’s difficulty with unanticipated questions is a communicable disease, and she is working to spread it. “What some textbooks are doing,” she has complained, “is giving students ideas, and ideas will never do them as much good as facts.” Further, in her view students should apparently not show any interest in facts not found in their textbooks. Norma objected to a fourth-grade book that urged students to verify facts by consulting other sources, on the grounds that “it could lead to some very dangerous information.”

On their failure to understand how history works.

The shortcomings of the Gablers’ view of education — as a process by which young people are indoctrinated with facts certified to be danger-free, while being protected from exposure to information that might challenge orthodox interpretations — can be seen by looking at three areas: history, science, and the social sciences. One may or may not agree with the particular objections the Gablers make to various history books, but it is clear that they are oblivious to the idea that the writing of history has never been, nor can it ever be, factual in any pure sense. Those who provided eyewitness accounts and other records with which historians work were engaged in interpretation, not only in adjusting the light under which they chose to display the materials they assembled but even in their selection of events, dates, and people from the infinite possibilities open to them. And to imagine that they or anyone else engaging in the historical enterprise does so free of the influence of his or her values, perceptions, and ideological biases is to believe something no reputable historian has believed for generations.

Nor did they accept that a textbook could contain any criticism of America ever. They were Young Earth creationists. 

There's lots more. This article is worth a read; it's thorough, thoughtful and fair. I'd never run across Martin before--he spent 54 years teaching at Rice and has a variety of other accolades--but he wrote a profile that turns out to have resonance across the decades. It shames the christianist nationalists and astroturf culture panic artistsof today. I'll leave you with his final paragraph of the piece.

It may not be possible to prove that an open mind is better than a closed one, or that the proper antidote to a bad idea is not censorship but a good idea, or that a society in which some questions are never answered may be preferable to one in which some answers are never questioned, but I believe these things to be true. I not only believe them; I have bet my life on them.


  1. This type of "thinking" is sooo scary. I really like Martin's last paragraph.

  2. Just teaching the facts really doesn't work, but there is the issue of teacher "autonomy" that you posted recently. I'm glad that when I went to HS in the late 70's early 80's, we never knew (or cared) what political affiliation our teachers were associated with. Facts were presented by teachers and personal opinions/discussions were encouraged and respected without (we kids) choosing sides and calling one another names.