Mel Gabler is not a household name, yet he had more influence in shaping recent American life than most people ever dream of. He and his wife Norma stood in the gap for over four decades, battling the tax-funded schools' textbook Establishment. Time and time again, the Gablers inflicted enormous financial losses on textbook firms until the publishers learned to clear their textbooks in advance with the Gablers. I can think of no couple that inflicted as much pain on the liberal humanist educational establishment.
Mel fell on December 17, hit his head, and died on December 19.
The Gablers have lived in the small east Texas city of Longview, a blue-collar town that had once been the center of the Texas oil boom. In 1961, they began to read textbooks in history and social science that were being assigned to their son. The more they read, the angrier they became. They decided to challenge publicly these poorly written, poorly researched textbooks. This was possible in Texas because there is a public school textbook committee that approves all texts in the state: the State Textbook Committee.
Texas buys so many textbooks that a textbook that is not on the Committee’s approved list is basically dead in the water nationally. Thus, when the Committee vetoes a textbook, the publisher has to scrap it or revise it. Back in the early 1970s, when the Gablers' protests were gaining steam, only five books per subject got onto the approved list. The waiting period for the next round of texts was up to six years. The unrecoverable “sunk” costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, a book that “flunked” in Texas became the target of scrutiny in other states. The economic pain of a veto was intense. It still is.
Mel and Norma spent decades reading textbooks. They saw the decline in both accuracy and moral probity that began after 1960. Their huge, old warehouse/office is filled with shelves of these textbooks. There is no better center in the United States where a researcher can trace the history of the decline in textbook standards over the last generation.
The Parent-Teachers Association brings parents into the fringes of local educational decision-making, providing the illusion that they have influence. But in any organization whose membership is divided between paid members and temporary volunteers, the professionals maintain long-term control. The organization heads off criticism in advance. It makes temporary insiders out of people whose self-interest as taxpayers and parents would otherwise tend to make them outsiders. Parents come and go, along with graduating classes.
The Gablers were different. When they joined the PTA in 1961, Mel had only one year of college, and Norma had only a high school diploma. But they had learned how to read in school. Unlike most PTA members, they actually began to read what was being assigned to their children. This began after their oldest son complained about his American history textbook. Mel was skeptical at first, but he agreed to read it. That changed his life and his wife’s life. It also changed the way that textbook publishing companies do business.
The story of what they did next appears in the 1976 book, Textbooks on Trial. They used local radio and direct mail techniques from the beginning, even before Norma appeared before the Committee. That publicity got the Committee’s attention. Her appearances before the Committee every year kept its attention.
The Gablers turned out to be two of the most skilled media attention-grabbers in Texas. Norma especially had a gift for the sound bite. When, in 1973, she found a fifth grade U.S. history textbook that devoted almost seven pages to Marilyn Monroe and a few sentences to George Washington, she gained national headlines by commenting: “We’re not quite ready for Marilyn Monroe as the mother of our country.”
They kept coming back to the Committee every year. They kept mailing. They kept calling local radio stations. Decade by decade, their audience grew: “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” “ABC World News Tonight,” “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, People, and on and on. Their book, What Are They Teaching Our Children? became a textbook for other parents, both those who sought to reform tax-funded education and those who pulled their children out. Their non-profit organization, Educational Research Analysts, is a clearing house for information on what’s wrong with the nation’s public school textbooks. Their website is the starting place for citizens who want documented information on what the educational Establishment is promoting academically lately.
Thirty years ago, I discussed politics with Bill Richardson, a state senator in California, a former advertising executive, an author (Slightly to the Right, What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?), and a political direct-mail master. I asked him the secret of successful political activism. “Pain. You must be able to inflict pain on politicians. They will eventually cooperate if you are in a position to relieve the pain.”
The Gablers hit the educational Establishment where it hurts most: the pocketbook. I have no illusions that they ever had a chance of reforming the public school system, but they did inflict a lot of pain on people who richly deserved it. There has been gnashing of teeth in New York publishing houses, followed by the pulling of teeth: author-resented revisions of textbook copy. This will continue. The Gablers' research assistant, Neal Frey, will monitor the publishers as he has for the past two decades.
If you want a model for what “the little guy can do,” begin with the Gablers.