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The great textbook wars
Conservatives and liberals are having a tug of war over textbooks. Can a divided nation ever agree on a common curriculum?
Do Texas textbooks have a liberal bias?
Do Texas textbooks have a liberal bias?
Corbis
W

hy do textbooks cause so much trouble?
With the divide between conservatives and liberals more contentious than ever, Americans no longer agree on the most basic facts of history, science, or other subjects. Social conservatives have long complained that mainstream textbooks reflect a liberal bias, promoting multiculturalism, secular values, and a negative interpretation of American history, at the expense of Christian values, the importance of free enterprise, and a belief in American exceptionalism—the idea that this country is the best, and most noble, nation in world history. “Academia is skewed too far to the left,” says Don McLeroy, a Christian fundamentalist and former member of the Texas State Board of Education. “We are adding balance.” Liberals, meanwhile, complain that conservatives are now rewriting texts to suit their prejudices, while ignoring expert opinion about such topics as evolution. The battle has raged for decades, but the acrimony reached a new height last spring in Texas, where the state board of education engaged in an unusually detailed public debate over textbook content.

Who won that battle?
Conservatives. They established a majority on the 15-member state board of education, which develops curriculum standards—the content guidelines for textbook publishers to follow. In a series of meetings, the board’s majority demanded significant changes in social studies textbooks. To start, they wanted the texts to establish that the U.S. is a “Christian land governed by Christian principles,” as board member Cynthia Dunbar put it. Some historical figures, the board said, should be made more prominent, while others are downplayed or eliminated. Under the new standards, Thomas Jefferson, author of the notion that a “wall of separation” exists between church and state, would be dropped from the list of primary figures in the nation’s founding, and become a minor figure. The liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy and labor leader César Chávez would no longer appear at all. President Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, would assume new prominence as a national hero, and students would learn about the “conservative resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s.” Slavery, under the new standards, would no longer be described as America’s original sin, and would become “the Atlantic triangular trade”—a relic of British colonialism that America struggled to cast off. Not surprisingly, liberals and many professional educators were outraged. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world,” said Mary Helen Berlanga, a member of the board’s outvoted Democratic minority.

Will publishers adopt these standards?
For Texas, yes. The textbook industry is dominated by three major players—Pearson Education Inc., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill—which together serve about 80 percent of the U.S. K–12 market. Ignoring Texas is hardly in their interest; Texas is the second-largest textbook market in the country after California, and spends some $60 million annually on books for its 4.7 million students. Since only texts approved by the state board can be purchased with state funds, and since Texas is a regional leader, often influencing the textbook purchases made by surrounding states, publishers have great incentive to incorporate the board’s 300 specific revisions. “Because of its purchasing power, Texas has unique force with the educational publishers,” says Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council. Publishers are now preparing bids to produce the revised textbooks, which will likely arrive in classrooms in September 2013.

Will other states use these textbooks?
They might, but probably only if they agree with Texas’ view of history. In most states, local districts can choose the books they want, provided their students continue to meet state-mandated testing standards. In fact, some argue that Texas is not terribly influential at all. “It’s gotten to be an exaggeration, if not an urban legend, about how curriculum in Texas automatically hops state lines,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. In addition, technological advances are making it easier to customize textbooks to suit the requirements of multiple markets. But customization eats into publishing profits, and some educators complain that, in their drive to create one-size-fits-all books that can be sold in many markets, publishers have drained the lifeblood from history and other subjects, promoting bland, inoffensive books that serve no one.

Is a truce possible?
Probably not. Since many boards, like the state board in Texas, are elected, politics is unavoidable. In the 1980s, the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition encouraged social conservatives to run for education boards around the country as a way to influence school curricula. Many were successful, and immediately began pushing to revise curricula and textbooks to reflect conservative Christian values. But politics in textbooks predates even them. Through the 1950s, social studies textbooks portrayed American history as a series of triumphs. But after the 1960s, textbooks acquired a darker tone, dealing with subjects such as slavery, Indian massacres, and interventionist foreign policy, and paying more attention to the struggles of women and minorities. Journalist Frances FitzGerald called the shift “the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place.” But as Texas proved this spring, every revision is subject to revision.

Foreign lessons
Some regimes can’t resist using textbooks to make a political point. Chinese textbooks, for example, attribute Japan’s defeat in World War II to heroic Chinese resistance, not to the U.S. military campaign in the Pacific and the dropping of two atomic bombs. Textbooks in Iran depict women as second-class citizens and encourage youth to “strike fear in the hearts of the enemies of God.” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has encouraged an ambitious re-education project in Russian schools called “positive history,” with the goal of casting Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, under whose rule some 20 million Russians died, in a more positive light. Textbook author Aleksandr Filippov devotes only a single paragraph to the Great Famine created by Stalin’s agricultural policies. “It’s wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people,” he says.

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