A New Battlefront Opens in the Textbook Wars

We trust school textbooks to be packed with facts, to be dispassionate overviews of everything that is and that has ever happened. We assume that middle-school and high-school students today know the same stuff we knew at their age: that with certain embellishments, certain improvements and updates, each new generation chiseling its initials into desktops inherits a basic knowledge set, taken for granted, the nuts and bolts and navigators that we studied, back then.

But that was then. Now we live in strange times when everyone nurses his or her own truth. The very concept of objectivity has been deconstructed on kindergarten nap carpets. Thus the question of what deserves to be taught -- and what gets forgotten -- is a political matter. At its core throbs a $4.5-billion-a-year textbook industry in which four megapublishing houses produce nearly all the books used at American public schools. And the process by which it is decided what kids will learn is a big messy mosh. Its winners and losers include pressure groups, religious zealots, lobbyists, school boards, the megapublishers -- Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, Pearson and McGraw-Hill and their many imprints -- and, oh yeah, the kids.

Just as the left and right accuse each other of controlling U.S. media, both also accuse each other of controlling academia.

Sen. Sheila Kuehl -- better known to boomers as the actress who played Zelda in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," circa 1960 -- authored a bill this year requiring California textbooks to "accurately portray in an age-appropriate manner the cultural, racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity of our society." The state senate approved the bill 22-15 on May 11. LGBT activists celebrated because, in academia, what California does matters. Along with also-populous Florida and Texas, it's an "adoption state," which means that books selected by California's school boards are fast-tracked to being adopted nationwide. Kuehl was optimistic, telling ABC News that she envisioned future textbooks describing James Baldwin not merely as "an African American writer" but as "an African American gay writer." (Baldwin himself preferred being called simply "an American writer" to "a black writer.")

SB 1437's critics included Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vowed to veto the bill if and when it reached his desk. Hoping to dodge that veto, on Aug. 7 the state legislature approved an amended -- some say gutted -- version of the bill, which mandates only that textbooks not reflect adversely on people based on sexual orientation.

On Sept. 6, Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

It comes down to the same old skirmish: Should individuals get column inches because of what they did -- or because of who they are in terms of involuntary identity-definers such as gender and class? Who goes in? Who stays out? Says who? Not everyone can fit. The books are already overstuffed: Houghton Mifflin's 747-page A More Perfect Union, a typical middle-school social studies volume, weighs four pounds.

The sins of yesterday's history textbooks were largely of omission: the achievements of women, non-Westerners, preliterate societies and people of color remained sadly unsung. A fix-that urgency infuses today's books. The frontier-settlement section of America: Pathways to the Present starts with a brief introduction, and then: "The majority of settlers who traveled to the west were white. There were, however, thousands of African Americans who moved westward." Next we learn about "A Frontier for Women": "Many women regretted their family's [sic] decision to go west." The pendulum swings wide, atoning. Houghton Mifflin's To See a World includes details on Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan and patron-of-the-arts Isabella D'Este, but omits mention of their near-contemporary, Galileo. Fair? Or arbitrary?

A main reason for making textbooks so diverse is the idea that kids need role models in whom they can recognize themselves, and academia has been dead-white-men territory for far too long. My husband's teachers at Berkeley public schools in the late '60s and early '70s were academic revolutionaries. You kids have already learned white people's history, they announced at the start of each school year. But the kids hadn't already learned white people's history. As it happened, they never did.

Because the financially strapped Berkeley School District was stocked solely with old, unapologetically eurocentric books -- which the kids seldom saw -- many teachers typed and mimeographed their own classroom materials to distribute instead. My husband saved a stack of these. "Africa: The Father and Motherland," reads one yellowed page featuring a map. Other pages comprise a crash course in Swahili. (Mimi ni mwanafunzi means "I am a student.") The teachers handing out these materials, and the students memorizing them, were nearly all white: the spawn of professors, grad students and beatniks. It was the wave of the future. Since 1976, California's curriculum has been legally required to be inclusive and characterize specified groups in upbeat, inspirational ways. According to official state guidelines, an equal number of males and females must be depicted performing equally strenuous physical and mental tasks, solving problems and displaying a span of emotions. To be adopted in California, textbooks are forbidden by law to "reflect adversely," as the official wording puts it, on pretty much anyone.

But textbook publishers are major corporations. Textbooks are consumer products. So -- like the sellers of soft drinks or software -- the top publishers strive to please the maximum number of potential buyers. That means busting their butts not to reflect adversely. So before a book reaches the market, its publisher holds public hearings and hires special-interest advisors to read, revise, expand and approve the manuscript. Among the credited contributors to Prentice-Hall's World Cultures: A Global Mosaic are ten "multicultural reviewers," eight "area specialists" and a dozen teacher-reviewers, along with four authors. McDougal Littell's The Americans is the product of five authors, a six-member multicultural advisory board, five "content consultants," 36 "manuscript reviewers," four multimember "teacher panels" and 24 student reviewers.

Advocacy groups exist for the very purpose of influencing curriculum.

"These sham proceedings are concocted and run by the publishers," says William Bennetta, a Northern California science writer whose national watchdog group, The Textbook League, monitors curriculum for bias and errors. Bennetta is especially critical of religious groups whose efforts are clearly visible in today's history and science books. He characterizes the publishing process as a rogues' gallery in which "it's hard to distinguish between ignorance and deliberate subversive influence. They have these hearings in which louts of every stripe can show up and demand that their version of the facts appear in a book. Whoever panders first wins. You shouldn't decide the veracity of a historical claim by the number of people who turn out and shout the loudest at these hearings."

In principle, every group gets a voice and basks in the best light. In practice, as groups leap into the breach left behind by tattered eurocentrism, the result is a food fight, a kind of intellectual revenge. In one of this country's most popular history textbooks, World Cultures: A Global Mosaic, Michelangelo ranks among the nine figures profiled as history's top "Builders and Shapers." The other eight? Zapotec Mexican president Benito Juárez; Canadian feminist Emily Murphy; 10th-century Baghdadi doctor Muhammad al-Razi; Filipino president Emilio Aguinaldo; Zulu king Shaka; 16th-century Mughal King Akbar the Great; 20th-century Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov; and 15th-century King Sejong, "Father of the Korean Alphabet." Not to totally dismiss discerning the difference between smallpox and measles, as al-Razi allegedly did, or winning women the right to sit on Canada's senate -- but we're talking the history of the whole world here.

And religion is a fractious factor in this food fight. If you thought campus prayer groups and "one nation under God" were today's only instances of deities being strongarmed into secular student life, think again.

Researchers at New York's American Textbook Council issued a report in 2003 alleging that the Orange County-based Council on Islamic Education exists largely to turn public-school textbooks into evangelical tools. Praise from editors at top textbook publishers adorns CIE's website, which also includes downloadable booklets designated for publishers' use. "Strategies and Structures for Presenting World History" draws heavily on Qu'ranic passages, and asserts: "It is Allah who has laid his creation open for observation and study for His glorification. ... Muhammad frequently ended his remarks with the exhortation to those present to convey it to others." Not such a far cry from prayer in the schools, really.

The Qu'ran exhorts Muslims to perform dawa -- literally, "an invitation," but it boils down to evangelism. A "Dawa in Public Schools" page on the dawanet.com website advises: "The school may not allow you to preach in the school paper, but Alhamdu lillah, there are ways to circumvent this problem. ... Remember, it was the will and help of Allah, Iman (faith) and Muslim creativity that won victories for the Muslims. Schools and campuses are no exceptions as places where Islam can be victorious," the website declares, then offers a link to the CIE, which it says "can also help."

Founded in 1990, "the Council on Islamic Education pretends to be a research center but is in fact a propaganda agency," says historian and former Newsweek education editor Gilbert Sewall, who heads a research center of his own at Columbia and directs the American Textbook Council. "Of course Islam is a subject that should be taught at schools. But how it's taught and what is said, and what's not said -- and by whom -- is very important. Because of pressure from the CIE, the whole subject is whitewashed."

Having addressed Congress about this topic, Sewall is irked at the fact that in all but one of the tenth-grade history books newly approved for use in California, jihad is not discussed: "They just scrapped it as a geopolitical concept." In Sewall's view, "a 'soft jihad' is being won in editorial offices."

In 2002, a mother in San Luis Obispo, Calif., filed suit after her son's school district required him to study Houghton Mifflin's seventh-grade text Across the Centuries, whose homework assignments asked students to role-play as 7th-century Muslim pilgrims and build miniature mosques.

Another seventh-grade text -- History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond, published by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Teachers' Curriculum Institute -- was withdrawn from a Scottsdale, Ariz., school last year after parents objected to the ecclesiastical air of the book's Islam section, which occupies as many chapters as do Europe's entire Renaissance and Reformation, combined. Among those chapters are "The Teachings of Islam" and "The Prophet Muhammad," which includes such pieties as: "In about 610 C.E., Muhammad went to pray in a cave in the mountains. It was there that he received the call to be a prophet, or messenger of God." As detailed at TCI's website, this chapter asks students to "create an illustrated manuscript that retells the story of Muhammad's life in their own words."

William Bennetta laments: "We're talking about deliberate deception and the abuse of children. ... They teach as fact these ridiculous superstitions. Folk tales. The idea that this is a history book has been lost entirely."

As a science writer, he is just as incensed at Christian pressure groups and what he calls "a body of woo-woo known as intelligent design." Railing against ID as "a hoax ... the creationists' favorite device for deceiving state education agencies, for tricking local school boards, for gulling classroom teachers, and for inducing schoolbook-publishers to pervert and falsify the treatment of organic evolution in biology books," Bennetta -- a Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences -- has written scholarly articles exposing ID's loopholes.

Even so, South Carolina's Board of Education reaffirmed its support earlier this year for proposed changes in the state's high-school science-teaching standards. These would allow textbooks to question evolution and thus float the idea that life on Earth is so complex as to arguably be the work of an omnipotent "designer." Leading the committee pushing the changes are several Republican senators. Evolution/ID firefights rage in other states too. In 2002, school officials in Cobb County, Georgia, allowed science books to be affixed with stickers that read: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." After some parents protested, the case went to court. This January, a federal judge in Atlanta ruled the stickers unconstitutional.

The sticker concept might soon be moot, because the next big trend is to toss out textbooks entirely. Instead of books, this year millions of California K-5 students are using a history-learning computer program developed by Pearson. Set to be adopted in other states, the "activities-based" program includes media clips, video, and spoken text in English and Spanish. "It's revolutionary," asserts a promo video at Pearson's website. It's also a venal corporate move, as a program is immensely cheaper and quicker to produce than books.

But hey, it doesn't weigh four pounds. There's always that.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.