Extremists of every shade know well that those who control schools, news media, and libraries can control the lives of individuals and whole generations. The potential of textbooks in particular to shape minds has lately aroused new controversy in such disparate places as Texas and Japan although the issues remain essentially the same.
Recently, revisions of Japanese history books, reflecting a resurgent hawkishness, described the brutal Japanese attacks preceding and during World War II as ''advances'' rather than as ''aggression.'' Reports of other events were also toned down. China, South Korea, the Philippines protested vehemently against the new versions in the names of the millions killed and abused. Japanese authorities quickly offered to reinstate the original grimmer and more accurate descriptions.
Periodically, we hear of efforts to deny or blur details of the Nazi Holocaust. In Zimbabwe, the new government has been rewriting history textbooks to record more scrupulously the facts of British colonialism and of the black past.
In Texas, the issue of what goes into textbooks has become an annual political spectacle. Ultimately, much of the rest of the country becomes involved. In Texas alone, annual textbook sales add up to $51,500,000, so much that companies alter editions simply to ensure the Texas market. What Texas approves affects content of textbooks in a wide range of subjects throughout the nation.
Right and left forces clash regularly at hearings of the Texas official committee that adopts books for the whole state. Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell's minions take on those of Norman Lear's ''People for the American Way,'' in one of the major ideological battlegrounds of our time.
Paradoxically, the opponents do not seem to disagree on fundamental principles. Mr. and Mrs. Mel Gabler, of Longview, Texas, the leading right-wing advocates in textbook encounters, declared recently, ''Textbooks mold nations because textbooks largely determine how a nation votes, what it becomes and where it goes.'' Few opponents of the Gablers would dispute that summation.
Yet, early in February, ''People for the American Way'' claimed ''victory'' when the board of education voted to allow the group to oppose the Gablers and their associates in textbook decisions. Lear's forces wanted equal right to affect choices.
But victory in such battles can only be hollow. Even compromise between extremists can be damaging, for one may not be able to compromise honestly on science, history, or the nature of language.
A bright freshman I knew, educated in Southern fundamentalist schools, simply went to pieces when confronted with Darwin, not so much because of the theory of evolution but because she had had no idea at all that such a theory existed. One reason, I venture, for the failure of so many students to read or write acceptably derives from the reluctance of their teachers to acknowledge comfortably the reality of the actual speech and reading habits of young persons today.
Should we allow grammatical fanatics, specifically, to correct Shakespeare's ''lapses''?
''A kind of a knave'' in ''Two Gentlemen of Verona,'' Jim Quinn has pointed out, has been improved by some editors to ''a kind of knave.''
Or should we allow students to read books Mr. Quinn, a persuasive linguistic permissivist, might approve, those with street vocabulary and grammar, or expressions like ''between you and I'' and ''who'' for ''whom''?
Should any group at any time be permitted to impose its view of the place in our history of women or minorities? Columnist Ellen Goodman cited one textbook example: ''Pioneers pushed west over the mountains. Their wives and children went along.'' Should ''The Merchant of Venice'' or ''Huckleberry Finn'' be restricted or edited so as not to distress Jews or blacks?
When Germany banned ''Jewish'' science and Jewish scientists, it lost the atom bomb, aside from much of its cultural heritage. Soviet citizens remain puzzled and ignorant about the real world because their textbooks and news media exaggerate socialist achievements and capitalist failures. American citizens, taught the pristine virtues of free enterprise, display dismay when the government has to save a private corporation like Chrysler from bankruptcy.
Who should control the contents of textbooks, and how? Should adversarial processes of any sort, left or right lobbying groups, this enthusiast or that crank, determine what young people read and study? Should we teach biology or the plays of Shakespeare on the basis of a poll or who wins an argument?
Politically sensitive committees should not shape the nature of textbooks. Responsible professionals should, the specialists who write or edit them, the teachers who use them. The free market of democratic education will determine the sound and successful titles. As for Shakespeare, Twain, or Quinn, one may remark, without elaborating the familiar debates, that Jewish and black children and their friends have as much right as anyone to learn fully about the world's realities.
To allow choices among dictionaries, translations of the Bible, writing handbooks, economics and biology texts, and literary works would spread the decision process and multiply paperwork. It might deny publishers the competitive edge that may come merely from enormous advertising and promotion expenditures. It certainly would prevent a single state from imposing its judgment, however indirectly, on much of the rest of the nation.
Japanese students today, living in a democracy, would be deprived, and as much harmed in important ways as the peoples of the invaded countries, by books that soften and thus distort the recent past. Would we want American children never to know of Hiroshima?