History textbooks: No slant required

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We don’t need any of that Texas-style, right-wing political slant in California textbooks, so it’s good to see a bill, SB 302, progressing through the Legislature that would require textbooks to be scrutinized for any of the odious changes that the Texas Board of Education ordered inserted into schoolbooks there. But it’s too bad that while state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was guarding textbooks against that conservative spin, he neglected to guard against the liberal political spin that was recently signed into law.

The Texas changes, adopted in 2010, represented an offensive twisting of historical fact. This included downplaying Thomas Jefferson’s role as a Founding Father because of his advocacy for separating church and state, elevating the inaugural speech of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the same prominence as that of Abraham Lincoln, and making it appear as though the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II had no racial aspect. That’s just wrong.

Yet California has also been politicizing its textbooks for years, in ways that are perhaps less blatantly dishonest (and more in line with the politics of this page) but that still reflect an unwarranted intrusion into academic issues. Among other things, textbooks are now required to show members of ethnic groups in exact proportion to their populations, and to include only positive portrayals of specific groups, no matter what the reality is. One of the more egregious examples is that the elderly must be portrayed as uniformly fit and active, as if older people don’t struggle with disproportionate levels of illness, disability and financial troubles.


Now the Legislature has added to the list with a bill written by Yee’s fellow San Francisco Democrat, Sen. Mark Leno. SB 48 requires textbooks and other instructional materials to include the contributions of “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.” Banned are instructional materials that “contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis [of] sexual identity.” Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill Thursday.

The gay rights movement is a legitimate subject in the study of U.S. civil rights. In fact, it’s more than legitimate; it’s a critically important movement of the 20th and 21st centuries that students ought to learn about. But that doesn’t change the fact that politicians shouldn’t be dictating what material appears in textbooks. Besides, do we really want textbooks to include the details of a historical figure’s sexual orientation even when it might have nothing to do with his or her role in history? And does it make sense to require that portrayals of gay people focus on “contributions” and not anything that could be construed as negative? Real history is richer and more complicated than feel-good depictions.

Whether in Texas or California, politicians and interest groups have no rightful place in the writing of textbooks. It is the job of the state to give broad direction to the scholars who frame a well-rounded curriculum, and the job of other scholars to write clear, interesting and thoughtful textbooks to impart that curriculum to our students without meddlesome micromanagement. It would be a great thing for education to see a bill that offers such protections to academic integrity.

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