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A textbook case of politicization

Last week we wrote about California’s decision to require teachers and textbooks to include positive messages about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in their lessons. We opposed that law — not because we think schools shouldn’t teach about the contributions of people of all sexual orientations (they should!), but because we’re concerned about the continuing politicization of California’s classrooms.

Is it really necessary to point out that politicians aren’t the best arbiters of what should be taught to schoolchildren? Those judgments are best left to teachers and educators. Politicians, as everyone knows, have a tendency to pander to constituency groups and to let, well, politics influence their decisions. In Texas, school authorities routinely order up textbooks that reflect their conservative agenda; in California, the Legislature pushes textbooks to the left. We think both are wrong.

If you’re curious about what can happen when this kind of thing is taken to the extreme, you need only read the story in Tuesday’s Times by Edmund Sanders. He reports that in disputed East Jerusalem, where Palestinians live under Israeli control, there are now two sets of school textbooks: one written by the Palestinian Authority and the other a “revised” version put out by the Israelis. The Israelis (who fund the schools) insist that only their books may be used, but Palestinians say the books have been censored and they are quietly using their old versions.

As usual in the Middle East, the two sides don’t even agree on the nature of the dispute. Israeli authorities say they’re merely trying to ensure that the textbooks are accurate, don’t incite violence and respect Israel’s legitimacy. They say they’ve taken out sections that glorify martyrdom and that describe Zionism as “racist.” Palestinians complain that Israel has excised anything relating to Palestinian identity or nationalism, including images of Palestinian flags, a chapter on Palestinian history and a picture of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

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Israel and its Arab neighbors have been engaged in a culture war over textbooks for years, and it is not likely to end soon. California’s battle is newer, but is gaining momentum. This year, for the first time, the Legislature passed a law that specifically requires textbooks to be scrutinized for any of the odious changes that the Texas Board of Education ordered inserted into its textbooks (such as elevating the inaugural speech of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the same prominence as that of Abraham Lincoln), even as it passed another law adding groups to the list of those that must be praised in our textbooks.

There will always be debates over textbooks — over what history is important and whose interpretation ought to prevail and how competing narratives ought to be told. But we’d feel more comfortable if that debate were conducted by scholars and educators rather than politicians.


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