Dull, dishonest textbooks

Textbooks are critically important and seriously lousy argues a MSNBC/Newsweek column by Marc Fisher.

American textbooks are both grotesquely bloated (so much so that some state legislatures are considering mandating lighter books to save students from back injuries) and light as a feather intellectually, flitting briefly over too many topics without examining any of them in detail. Worse, too many of them are pedagogically dishonest, so thoroughly massaged to mollify competing political and identity-group interests as to paint a startlingly misleading picture of America and its history.

Writing in the LA Times, Diane Ravitch argues for dropping California’s mandate that every possible group be mentioned favorably.

When it comes to males and females, for instance, the Legislature decreed that “equal portrayal must be applied in every instance.” That means, among other things, that an equal number of male and female characters must be depicted in “roles in which they are mentally and physically active, being creative, solving problems … ” and that male and female characters in textbooks must show a “range of emotions (e.g. fear, anger, tenderness.)”

California’s textbooks and other materials must instill a “sense of pride” in students’ heritages and may not include “adverse reflection” on any group. Cultural or lifestyle differences may not be portrayed as “undesirable.” Members of minority groups must be shown “in the same range of socioeconomic settings” as those in the majority.

Instead of adding gays and lesbians to the good-news-only groups, Ravitch suggests dropping the requirement for everyone.

Telling publishers that their books must instill pride only guarantees a phony version of feel-good history. Publishers, as a result, bend over backward to be positive, whether writing about the genocidal reign of Mao Tse-tung (presumably to avoid offending his admirers) or the unequal treatment of women in Islamic societies (to avoid offending Muslims).

We toured Valley Forge yesterday. I noticed the Welcome Center exhibit had a bit about blacks, Indians, women, Catholics and Jews in the Revolutionary War. But Martha didn’t get equal time with George.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Doing this is silly. Why should some kid today feel “pride” because someone who had a similar shade of skin did something a couple hundred years ago?

    My ancestors came from all corners of Great Britain, but I don’t feel “pride” when I read about Elizabeth I, Isaac Newton, or Winston Churchill.

    Silly.

  2. Should we take pride in Manifest Destiny? Slavery? The Holocaust? Should we not teach about these subjects because they are shameful? The whole point is to point out that all people are equal, with the same capabilities AND human frailties. It is a tricky balance, but it is not accomplished by ingnorance or revisionism.

  3. These are the role models portrayed in my son’s algebra textbook: Juan de la Cierva, Albert Einstein, Hypatia, Maria Mitchell, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Emily Warren Roebling, Daniel Hale Williams and Hsien Wu. So who are these people who are more worthy than Gauss, Euler, Newton, Euclid? In fact only Ramanujan is worth mentioning at all. In college I read a lot about history of Chinese mathematics and I have never heard about Hsien Wu. From reading the algebra book it turns out he was a biochemist who later research nutrition. Probably he was in there as a token Chinese.

  4. hogeb, your point is ridiculous. What do the Holocaust and slavery have to do with mathematics? Is it not enough that humans did these things to each other for me to feel bad about them? Or do I have to feel bad because I’m white/American/descended-or-Europeans or whatever other category you put me in.

    We can teach about the faults of the past without trying to lay a guilt trip on people today, and we can teach math without patronizing people by trying to create some false pride over something they had no part in at all.

  5. Wayne Martin says:

    > The whole point is to point out that all
    > people are equal, with the same capabilities
    > AND human frailties.

    This sounds more like social engineering than history to me.

  6. dogbert2 says:

    What the hell are all these figures doing in a math textbook…my old precalculus text from my college days (circa 1981) doesn’t have a single reference to a historical figure using math, but it does have lots of equations and explantions on how to solve said problems…the book weighs about a pound, btw…

    Sheesh!

  7. dogbert2 wrote:

    What the hell are all these figures doing in a math textbook

    Back in 1981 textbooks were written merely to teach the subject. Now the authors of textbooks aspire to the vastly more important purpose of promoting social justice.

    The masses – I ought to see if I can get membership cards printed up – aren’t refined enough, intelligent enough, elevated enough to understand the importance of social justice by ourselves. We need to be preached too, continuously and comprehensively, by our betters where it isn’t possible to simply outlaw unacceptable thoughts and attitudes.

    If kids graduate high school without the ability to understand fractions, what’s that against the noble task of improving the breed?

  8. dogbert2 says:

    Most high school graduates cannot add two fractions, and fractions are used in a profession which is very dear to a lot of people (food preparation), where being able to follow a recipe properly produces a good final outcome.

    I personally couldn’t care less about the issue of social justice and feel-good mantra which passes for clap-trap education these days. If students want to succeed they better learn to pick the wheat from the chaff…

  9. dogbert2 wrote:

    If students want to succeed they better learn to pick the wheat from the chaff…

    What students want isn’t a consideration and neither, to a large extent, is educating them with the skills they’ll need upon graduation. What is necessary, to sell textbooks, is to please the textbook selection committee; that’s the publishers customer not the kids or their parents.

  10. Wayne Martin says:

    > What is necessary, to sell textbooks, is to
    > please the textbook selection committee; that’s
    > the publishers customer not the kids or
    > their parents.

    This seems to be true.

    It’s a shame that an organization of parents (not the so-called PTA) doesn’t come into existence that reads and rates text books, providing other parents with data necessary to oppose the use of these texts in their community.

    School Districts ought to be forced to list the texts, their publishers, the table of contents and maybe a chapter on the District’s WEB-site so that all of the parents and taxpayers can see what is being taught to students.

  11. The text should read “inspired by” or “based on a true story” if this is the case. Who are we protecting if we are not learning from our mistakes.

    This is ridiculous. I just flew across country and read a nice little article in one of those airplane magazines about a public school that got rid of all their text books. Teachers loved it and the kids were more involved and hands on, it sounded very promising. Whats going to happen when a text book portrays one thing while all other sources say another? I dont get it.

  12. Forgot to mention in the last comment that the students were given laptops with high speed internet access instead of books.

  13. Indigo Warrior says:

    Teach the kids real history, i.e. sifting through tons of boring-and-obscure-as-hell primary sources so they could assemble something free of biases other than their own.