The House of the Two Gablers Helps Decide What Johnny Can't Read in Texas Schools
This tiny, tidy beehive is the core of the Gablers' nonprofit organization, Educational Research Analysts. Despite its small size and budget ($130,000 this year), ERA'S sting is felt all across the Lone Star State—and beyond. Mel, 66, and Norma, 58, are devout Christian fundamentalists who have become the most influential of the "new right" activists now campaigning in many states against textbooks and educational practices they find objectionable on moral or other grounds. The latest demonstration of their clout came in the annual August hearings of the Texas Textbook Committee, which screens books for all the state's public schools. This year the committee was considering a $27 million order from a list of some 500 titles on 31 subjects. The Gablers testified against 15 of the offerings, citing offenses ranging from graphic sexual instruction to slighting of the NASA space program. Eleven of the books on the couple's hit list were rejected.
Many education professionals are appalled by the Gablers. "They are extremely dangerous," says Barbara Parker, associate editor of the journal of the Washington-based National School Board Association. "What they are trying to do is purge the schools of all views other than their own. They are trying to kill the concept of pluralism, and that is a danger to our democracy." The Gablers, who themselves have only high school educations, scoff at such charges. Says Norma: "They always think that if you don't have an extensive education, you don't know what you're talking about. But I don't need degrees to tell me that so-called literature which includes the worst kinds of human behavior doesn't bring out the best in youngsters."
After 20 years of delivering such pithy opinions, the Gablers are sought-after lecturers in other states and have even done turns on 60 Minutes and Donahue. They can boast both a commendation from the Texas Senate and a condemnation from the American Library Association, which has scourged them as self-appointed "censors." The Gablers heatedly deny that. "We don't have the power to censor anything," says Mel, a retired Exxon materials accountant who is ERA's president. "All we can do is present the facts and speak our minds, the same as everybody else." Adds Norma, ERA's secretary-treasurer and main spokesperson: "All I ever said is I don't want my values in the books—but I don't want your values in there either. I still get called an extremist now and then. I'm extremely proud of being a mother, and I am extremely proud of being an American, so I guess that makes me an extremist. But if people listen to me, they usually change their minds."
Nobody has changed more than the Textbook Committee. Its 15 appointees sneered when Norma first began bugging them in 1961, and she was quickly tagged the "Dirty Book Lady" by local newspapers. Now the members sit forward when she speaks, and publishers quake. The Gablers have only a few weeks each summer to review new texts before the August hearing, but their written critiques are meticulous—and always supplemented at the Austin sessions by Norma's quietly waspish humor. This year she brought a three-inch wooden furniture dowel to illustrate what a sex-ed book gave as the size of a normal penis. "My husband," she dead-panned, "says a baby's is bigger than that."
Such talk isn't what most folks expect from nondrinking, nonsmoking members of the fundamentalist Christian Missionary Alliance, but the Gablers cite their "calling" in defense of it. They devote full time to their cause, poring over texts far into the night in their Longview home and traveling almost constantly to lecture about the evils they find. They live entirely on Mel's $500-a-month pension and $400-a-month Social Security benefits. The ERA's budget is underwritten by donations, speaking fees and the income from their book (Are Textbooks Harming Your Children?) and a biannual newsletter sent to 13,000 subscribers.
What riles the Gablers most are trends they think are undermining essential values, and Mel is quick to identify them: "Number one, absolutes are seldom included in education. I challenge anyone to find a textbook that says lying is wrong. Number two, the serious questioning of authority is becoming more prevalent. Number three, there is constant emphasis on change, change, change, without regard for the effects. If you put all these together, an 8-or 9-year-old can gradually be conditioned away from the values of his home." The Gablers say they merely want "traditional values" brought back to classrooms. They don't object to teaching evolution—as long as the Biblical story of creation is given equal time. "Teachers have been told if they leave God out of everything they are being neutral," Mel says. "In fact you then have the teaching of a no-faith concept."
"Kids can graduate and not know how to read and write," Norma notes sadly. "The teachers passed them because the trend is not to hurt anyone's feelings. The result: We have 61 million people who are functional illiterates. They can't follow the instructions on a medicine bottle."
That isn't to say that Mel and Norma are for all knowledge, however. "I don't think schools are the place to teach sex education," Norma says. "A girl's best defense against permissiveness is modesty, and today's books would destroy that after a while. The taboos break down and girls experiment and get pregnant—and then the abortion rate soars." Their adversaries argue that they and other textbook critics are basically trying to restore a world that has long since changed irreversibly. It is precisely because old taboos have broken down, the Gablers' foes say, that sex education is necessary.
Little in the Gablers' backgrounds prepared them for their crusade. Mel, the son of a Houston mail sorter, went to work for the Humble Oil Company after high school. He was sent, at 21, to Bagota, Texas (pop. 1,000) and boarded at the home of a fellow employee. The man was Norma's dad, Monroe Rhodes. Norma was only 12 when they first met. "Mel tells everybody he raised me like he wanted me," she says with a grin.
They wed in 1942 and had three sons, one of whom died in a car crash in 1971. The others, Jim, now 36, and Paul, 34, are both computer scientists. The Gablers never paid much attention to education until one day in 1961, when Jim came home from school complaining about a history book that said that the federal government has absolute authority over the states. That wasn't what the Gablers had been reared to believe. So they began digging into other texts, found other horrors—and soon drifted into a career of textbook watchdogging.
The Gablers don't mind that their 70-hour workweeks leave them little opportunity for a favorite pastime—camping and fishing at a nearby lake. They are sustained by their zeal, confident as righteous underdogs. "We're always accused of pushing right-wing fundamentalist views on the majority," as Mel puts it, "but really it's the other way around. As of now, in terms of textbooks, the fundamentalists get nothing and the liberals get 100 percent. I'd settle for 50-50."