Trey Kay’s Great Textbook War

An award-winning radio documentary recounts cultural changes in 1970s West Virginia that parallel those of today

Heated debates over new textbooks. Fights at school board meetings. Left versus right, with kids — and knowledge — caught in the crossfire.

Texas, circa 2010? No, West Virginia, 1974. In what some call the first shot in the culture wars, the Kanawha County, West Virginia, school district erupted in violence when new textbooks were introduced that discussed nonwhite, non-Christian cultures and featured writers like Eldridge Cleaver, Allen Ginsburg, and Sigmund Freud.

Local radio journalist Trey Kay — who was in sixth grade at the time — has produced a Peabody and Edward R. Murrow award-winning documentary on the event. The Great Textbook War originally aired on West Virginia Public Broadcasting in the fall of 2009 and is now being distributed nationally by American Public Media’s American RadioWorks.

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“For three months, there were violent protests, one person was shot, and the superintendent of schools couldn’t guarantee the kids’ safety,” says Kay, 48, who now lives in Red Hook with his wife and son and is an adjunct professor of journalism at Marist College. “The coal miners shut down the mines to picket schools. Snipers shot at school buses, schools were bombed, there was even a fist fight at a school board meeting.”

Kay, who has produced segments for This American Life, Marketplace, Morning Edition, PBS Frontline, and Studio 360, sees parallels between the events of 36 years ago and today. “In the end, the new books were allowed and parents had to sign releases for their kids to read them,” Kay says. “Liberal schools like mine used them, more working class schools didn’t. Each side thought it had won — ‘we showed ’em’— but in reality it was a stalemate with both sides cordoning off into their own echo chamber. Neither showed the other anything.”

So far, Northeast Public Radio has not broadcast The Great Textbook War. (“I even offered it to them free and they turned it down. I honestly don’t know what they are thinking,” Kay says with exasperation.) But the hour-long report is available online at the American Radio Works Web site.

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