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Textbook cases

Oh, those disingenuous Texans. Pretending to bring ideological balance to history textbooks when what they’re really doing is weighting the books so heavily with conservative mores, you’d expect the state’s backpack-laden school children to list to the right.

If the revisions proposed by the conservative faction of the Texas Board of Education are adopted in May, the state’s textbooks will raise the study of the inaugural speech of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the same level as that of Abraham Lincoln. They will downplay the role of Thomas Jefferson, in part because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state,” and will imply that the Founding Fathers were Christian even though historians have found evidence that not all of them held Christian beliefs. The internment of a relatively small number of people of German and Italian heritage during World War II would be emphasized to make it appear as though there wasn’t a racial component to interning more than 100,000 Japanese Americans. This amounts to just plain disinformation.

Before Californians look down their noses, though, they should consider the rules governing this state’s textbooks. The state regulates the portrayal of genders, minority groups, the elderly and the disabled by requiring proportional representation that also cannot show any group in a negative light. Thus, as education expert Diane Ravitch writes, the elderly must be portrayed as fit and lively even if reality tells us that some cope with illness and disability. Publishers have been discouraged from portraying people in poor countries as poor -- because that would stereotype those nations -- and told to soften language on AIDS in Africa so as not to reflect badly on that continent.

A veto threat by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped a 2006 bill that would have required textbooks to show a diversity of sexual orientation and include “the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to the total development of California and the United States,” basing choices of important people not solely on their accomplishments but on their sexual orientation.

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Each textbook adoption in the state becomes a battle in which religious, ethnic and other groups demand changes so that they are seen in a more positive light. In 2006, a group of Hindus wanted to change social studies books to say that women historically had “different” rights in India, not fewer, despite practices such as child marriage, bride harassment and unequal property rights, and to eliminate certain information about the caste system, even though scholars insisted that the information was correct as written. The state agreed to the changes -- until an opposing group took issue. That’s not to mention the time the state rejected a children’s reader because it included “The Little Engine That Could,” a classic story in which the train is portrayed as male -- gender stereotyping.

Nor are these the only emotional disputesover textbooks. In 2001, the government of Japan approved a textbook that defended that nation’s actions during World War II and downplayed the 1937 massacre in Nanjing. The textbook drew heated protest from China. Last year, politicians in Japan and South Korea began exploring the possibility of writing a joint history textbook with China to be used in all three nations, but as one Japanese official put it, “The countries have been unable to agree on historical matters.”

In the debate over what the nation’s children should be taught, we all view ourselves as moral purists, the people who want schools to teach facts as well as the skills and ethical values that will enable the next generation to succeed. The problem is that we can’t agree on what those skills and ethical values are, or, for that matter, on which facts are important and sometimes what those facts are.

In California, textbooks might offer repeated lessons on the great diversity of race and religion, but what about diversity of thought? There are elements of the Texas revisions that are obviously ridiculous, but there are others that clearly would bring more balance to education. We wouldn’t object to teaching about modern-day conservative groups such as the Moral Majority, one of the proposed additions. Students should learn about the breadth of opinion in this country. It’s also appropriate for teenagers to debate the value of international treaties, as the Texas board wants them to.

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The problem is that these decisions are left in the hands of politicians and appointed board members who often know little about education and less about history. The resulthasn’t been simply a slanting of textbook material but a simultaneous flattening of it. Publishers are so intent on meeting the long list of minutia demanded by states such as California and Texas that they have neglected to produce engaging books. Strange to say, the word “history” has its roots in the Greek word meaning narrative or learning by inquiry. Modern education has removed both.

We agree that textbooks need to be inclusive, unlike earlier versions that depicted white, middle-class people almost exclusively, down to the illustrations of children in elementary math problems. But when attempts to push one viewpoint or another distort the curriculum and reduce its accuracy, all students are harmed.

California and Texas have a disproportionate impact on the nation’s textbooks because they are the largest of the two dozen or so states that adopt textbooks statewide. And because of the two states’ complicated micromanagement of what the books can say and illustrate, it is the biggest publishing houses that are best able to work with them -- and to sell the resulting books across the country. Schools are left with a lack of variety and little competition in the industry.

Textbook information should be compiled by scholars and written by talented storytellers, not by politicians, interest groups or publishers’ corporate committees. The books should awaken children not just to the diversity of people but the diversity of opinions in our nation. We agree with Ravitch that part of the problem is statewide textbook adoption. If school districts were empowered to pick their own books, allowing a more competitive textbook market to thrive, there would be less opportunity for lobbyists of any stripe to have undue influence over the process. What we should ask of districts is that they produce results -- educated young adults -- not that they do it according to a rigid formula. Increased competition from smaller publishers would encourage the publication of richer learning materials -- the textbook revision that schools need most.

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