Thursday, May 12, 2005

Back to those pesky textbooks

I told you I’d be back to write about the textbook selection process in the US so here it is. I’ll try to keep this interesting. The first thing to note is that 21 of 50 states are what is called “adoption states”- that is, they have a state committee that approves textbooks for use in the public schools throughout the state. They don’t necessarily select them, but they decide which ones can be on a list for the different districts to choose from. This entire adoption process is a holdover from the reconstruction era following the Civil War in which Southern States didn’t want the Northern States (where the publishers were located) telling their kids about their own history. So the North published two sets of textbooks, one calling it The Civil War and the other calling it The War Between the States or The War of Southern Independence. Today, these 21 states are all in the South or West. The two biggest are Texas and California. Together they represent 21% of the textbook market. They’re choices determine whether a textbook succeeds, financially speaking, or not. If these states keep you off the adoption list, you can kiss your investment goodbye.

The textbook market in the US is worth almost $4.5 billion each year. In such a lucrative market, you’d expect to see some healthy competition. Unfortunately this is not the case. Texas and California are notorious for their demands. Not only do they want textbooks; they want all the ancillary material as well – CDs, workbooks, internet sites, videos, DVDs, overheads, etc. It can cost upwards of $1 million to bring a book to market. Hardly the kind of money a small-time publisher can afford to lose. The other element prohibiting small-time publishers is the outrageous vetting process conducted by the states. Because committees in Texas and California decide the fate of textbooks, the special interest groups have made these two states their battleground in their fight for the soul of the country.

The liberals (here & here) have the greatest influence in California while the conservatives (here & here) rule the day in Texas. Both believe in the power of the written word, that what students read they will imitate and aspire to. It is, therefore, their job to give them the proper model. For this model, liberals look toward an ideal future in which there is no racial conflict, no ethnic strife, no differences, no value judgments; everyone is happy and equal. Conservatives on the other hand, try to evoke an idyllic past reminiscent of an idealized 50s where dad worked while mom stayed at home with the kids and cooked in the kitchen. The former can’t tolerate intolerance, dominant groups, inequality, or any sort of prejudice. The latter abhor anything judged anti-American, which cam be loosely summed up as anything anti-patriotic, anti-authority, anti-military, anti-free market and anti-Christian.

The important thing to remember is that if a special interest group from either side makes enough noise about your textbook, you will not be approved in either state. You must, therefore, appease the special interest groups. Publishers have taken to including members of the various groups on their review committees which read through and approve the content of their textbooks. Anything judged controversial or objectionable is removed or modified. Let me give you a few examples:

From Diane Ravitch’s book, The Language Police, the following words were deemed offensive and should therefore be avoided:

Elderly, slave, cowboy, businessman, handicapped, pop/soda, man-made, huts, fat, blind, deaf…

On the right, one only need read through the transcripts of the Texas Adoption Hearings to know what they find offensive:

Evolution, sex education, tolerance toward other beliefs, omission of God…

My favorite anecdotes are the following:

Liberals made publishers change the gender of “The Little Engine That Could” so that they could raise the number of female characters in literature readers.

Conservatives objected to the Wizard of Oz in the same readers because the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man accomplished their mission on their own, without first praying to God to ask for his assistance.
It should be noted that these represent extremes. Very few people would agree with these two worldviews, but this is what makes American history textbooks so tragic right now – 5% of the population (the two extremes) is determining the national narrative for our public schools. And publishers are caving in to their demands. The result is a mish-mash of benign historical moments and issues in which historical inaccuracies are less offensive than any hint of stereotypes or anti-American sentiment. American textbooks, file them under pulp fiction.

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