Replacing Periods With Question Marks: A Study of the Role of Public Education in Kanawha County, West Virginia

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Engell, Sarah Michelle

In 1974 the proposal and adoption of new language arts textbooks, that sought to emphasize themes of multiculturalism and egalitarianism, sparked a violent year-long protest in Kanawha County, West Virginia. The opposition perceived the texts as overly sexual, anti-American, and intrusive while supporters celebrated the diversification of narratives and information. The ability of newly adopted language arts textbooks to spark an explosive controversy reflects the impact of textbooks and, more broadly, public education on creating a sense of identity and belonging. Through objecting or supporting the textbooks and the language they contained, the citizens of Kanawha County were bitterly fighting to protect their own definitions of what it meant to be a good student, parent, teacher, community member, and American. Furthermore, through protesting and ultimately reworking the process of textbook adoption and inclusion, the citizens redefined who and what was included in their notion of a good public school education. The research seeks to understand how a community’s perception of public education and the role it should play in a child’s life impacts the inclusion of the public in academic decision making as well as the insertion and definition of controversial matter in the classroom. In addition, the research seeks to better understand the triangulation of rights in public school between students, teachers, and parents.

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This paper was part of the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex. Find out more at
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