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Textbooks in a Politically Correct World

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So I’ve been reading a case study (as yet unpublished, but written by a co-worker’s father who is a professor at Brown) regarding textbook selection and regulations, particularly in Texas. You see, there are three major states that influence textbook publishing: Texas, California and Florida. The thing is, Texas and California have two opposite ideologies when dictating what should be taught. (This has led to more specialized textbook publishing, namely customized “state-specific” editions.) . . . Still, it’s interesting that depending on where you live you may get a very different kind of education, a very different slant. Texas leans towards conservative and traditional values in the classroom. Only recently were they able to begin putting evolution in the science books there. So many people rallied for Creationism to be taught on equal footing as evolution. Many petitioned for no teaching of dinosaurs, that textbooks should note that a number of people don’t believe the earth is more than a few thousand years old, instead of the millions of years old that the majority of scientists–based on evidence–consider it to be. Never mind the fossil record. Texas textbooks are only now beginning to portray women in roles other than wife, mother, care-giver. The books are only now beginning to move away from the pro-American, pro-capitalist propaganda that have filled them for decades. And I know, because I went to school in Texas.

California, on the other hand, swings the other way. Completely. It wants no traditional portrayals at all. It pushes political correctness to the limit. In every place that Texas is conservative, California is liberal. Heaven forbid a woman is shown as a stay-at-home mom in a California textbook. In California, apparently, that is a shameful thing. California doesn’t want stereotypically smart Asians, it doesn’t want grandmas baking cookies, it doesn’t want any kind of pride in America. There shouldn’t be nerdy kids, there shouldn’t be sporty kids, everyone should be shown as equal. Life in California texts is boiled down to a pasty, politically correct, mind-numbing blob.

Is there no balance between these two?

Face it: there are nerdy kids and sporty kids. It happens. It’s reality. And Texas clearly needs to come to grips with current scientific and sociological data. What education needs to do is give kids a world view. Not one the educators would like them to have, but a working one that the kids can apply to life as they know it. How left out does a nerdy kid feel when all he reads about are these perfect examples of well-rounded, well-adjusted characters? How confused is a kid who likes Jurassic Park but is told by his school system that dinosaurs are really just a theory and may never have existed at all, despite the bones displayed in so many museums?

Since I worked for two years in elementary textbook production, I feel like I have a good point of reference for this topic. I know from work experience that catering to Texas and California is a priority in the textbook publishing industry. These two states stand for a large portion of profits. (Florida as well.) In many cases, at least in my experience, the California books are often repackaged for sale to the rest of the nation at large. I’ve yet to experience the repackaging of Texas texts; it seems most states are looking for more liberal, politically correct books. I know a lot of time is spent making sure there are a certain number of minorities pictured in books, including showing male teachers and disabled people. Not necessarily a bad thing, but shouldn’t we focus a bit on the actual content? While political correctness levels rise, student achievement declines, as more time and effort is spent on the packaging and less emphasis is placed on the actual development of student texts.

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About ZMethos

  • Sage7

    Thank you for this article.

    I hope the following perspective will help you and all rational people deal with the PC scourge.

    A driving force behind Political Correctness

    Asserted here is one simple principle, you can observe it for yourself.

    Political Correctness (PC) has in effect become a new morality intended to displace Traditional Morality(TM) for the purpose of identifying who in society are the “good people”. TM focuses on matters of interpersonal moral accountability like “do not do things that hurt other people”, while all admonitions in PC are impersonal virtues like protecting the environment, animals, the under-privileged, and victims of social injustices, etc.. These are all good things, but they are all impersonal.

    The common thread through PC is assertions or implications of moral superiority or acceptability apart from TM values. Note that this definition of PC includes not just language adjustments (as asserted in the Wikipedia), but any kind of impersonal morally good principle upon which a person can claim moral superiority without acknowledging TM. The objective is to allow a person to feel good about themself in spite of the fact that choices that person has made have had bad consequences for the people closest to them: family, friends, lovers, co-workers, and other associates. This is why advocates of PC are so often accused of acting out of guilt… it is because they are… guilty of something that drives them into needing to feel good about themselves without addressing the real issues regarding their behavior.

    That displacement is intended is reinforced by the fact that people who are strident advocates of PC are also intent on diminishing TM in our society. That is because a PC society is less likely to hold people accountable for personal moral failures.

    Evidence: PC’s many policies designed to avoid hurting people’s feelings, except for the feelings of people who advocate TM.

    Evidence: PC advocate’s purging the words ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ from the PC vocabulary. Whose feelings are being protected by this? Just those who do not wish to examine the direct and indirect harmful consequences of their personal life.

    Evidence: PC advocate’s efforts to distance society from TM institutions and language. (No other people group is so singled out by PC advocates.)

    Note that this definition stands without the any force of religion. Religion only strengthens this definition. Unwise interpersonal deeds can and do bring sorrow to other people. Really “good people” appreciate constructive feedback and try to improve their behavior and to compensate those they harmed. In contrast, people who try to escape from interpersonal moral accountability pose a threat of harm to those around them. In effect they violate the fundamental contract of civilization… “that we can live in close proximity if we agree to not hurt each other”.


  • Jim:
    Right on. Maybe this is a subset of indoctrination, but schools also sort students socio-economically so as to prepare them for their proper place in the hierarchy. They also make students feel like worthless pieces of crap–all the more easy to build up again with indoctrination sculpting (sorry for the gross metaphor). And schools seek to make kids cry, cry, cry.

    I’m sure that there are many schools in America where minorities are largely overlooked (Texas, we agree, and Kansas?). However, when I was at last year’s conference for the National Council of Teachers of English, I got a different feeling. Based on all of the workshop and seminar offerings and on the materials displayed by publishers, I got the impression that multiculturalism and diversity are widespread topics in this country. At least there are a lot of people pushing for these issues. Whether or not certain areas are listening is another story.

    Maybe it’s time for me to revisit some old teacher books (Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, and Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, for example), and seek out some new ones, in order to get a better feel for what is going on nationwide in education. I have read some scary shit about Kansas lately.

  • I blame the Texas Schoolbook Repository. To say otherwise is just to give in to crazy talk. Crazy talk, I tell ya.

    With all this about textbooks as propaganda, it seems to me that the goal of education is being forgotten, unless of course, schools exist for indoctrination only. Surely that can’t be the case?

    This reminds me of Komar and Melamid’s Most and Least Wanted Paintings. They used poll results from various countries, and created paintings based on the poll results. Yes, they reflect popular opinion, but are they any good? No.

  • Correction: outgroups.

  • Al Barger you? Are you carrying a secret torch for Natalie, too? (Yes, I’ve figured that ole coot out.)

    My experience in academia, as a student, was just the opposite. And, it wasn’t all that long ago. The only way I got much information about women or minorities was to take women’s studies, black studies and Native American studies classes. If I hadn’t been someone who read a lot on her own before college and grad school, I would be ignorant of a lot of good writers. (Law school? Classes on issues impacting ougroups were dismissed as ‘blacks and broads’ by much of the student body. Our only nonwhite prof was hissed.)

    I do prefer to see ‘seasoned’ writers taught. Therefore, given a choice, I would omit Sherman Alexie (who happens to be a friend) and include Louise Erdrich, who I barely know. I’m not convinced Sherman’s work will hold up over time yet.

    However, there are still good, seasoned minority writers whose work does not get its due. Anne Petry is marvelous. Bessie Head, too. Wallace Thurman should be read by anyone who wants to understand the black bourgeosie. The beat poetry of Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) deserves more attention. And so on. If there is a problem, it may be with the selection committees not knowing about such writers.

  • Diva:

    Please don’t “Al Barger” me.

    I said: “I agree that the focus has been taken away from the actual content–perhaps sometimes by over-emphasis on politically correct representations. I can think of a few crappy stories that are in my current American literature anthology that are seemingly in the book just because they deal with an issue that deals with diversity or because they are by minority authors–but there are plenty of pieces in the same category that are excellent.”

    This is in no way an indictment of multicultural inclusion as a whole–rather, it just points out that there may be problems sometimes in the selection process of textbook editors. There are plenty of wonderful minority authors out there, but they don’t always find their way into the textbooks–perhaps because of the money issue that I mentioned in my previous comment (Alice Walker is excluded from some textbooks perhaps because of her bisexuality–an example of exclusion). There are also some crappy old white guys in the textbook. By the way, the American literature textbook (we use the previous edition, I think) that I teach in Michigan still doesn’t acknowledge that Walt Whitman was gay–a pretty key piece of information to understanding his impact on the world of literature. So, you’re right that progress still can be made.

    I also said: “I don’t have a problem with the inclusion of modern authors and young-adult fiction and multiculturalism, but a debate about the canon is for another posting.”

    I have no problem reading women and non-whites. I have read a ton of such literature, and I teach a lot of it. I love Alice Walker, and I teach an essay/memoir, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” by her in my American literature class that I pair with Their Eyes Were Watching God. I still wonder if sometimes people go too far in their pursuit of politically correct content, however (I can think of a teacher who spends perhaps 40-50% of her time, in my estimation, teaching literature of minorities in her American literature class. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is obviously not proportionally representative of the world of American literature as a whole). I recently took a graduate class called, “Modern American Novels.” The teacher focused on Native American writers–that is all we read. Literature of the oppressed is still a hot topic in the academic world. I loved the class, and the texts were great (Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven, Little, Almanac of the Dead, Grand Avenue, and more), but it didn’t seem to represent modern American novelists as a whole (the teacher acknowledged this, of course).

    I met a doctoral student whose thesis was on Native American women poets of the 1870’s and 1880’s. Now this is an interesting field of study for a doctoral student (I had no idea we even had such poetry), but from what I saw of the poems, I wouldn’t want to present them to students as quality literature. This brings up an interesting issue. Is literature taught to explore quality writing (which is of course a slippery slope)? Is the content sometimes more important than the quality? Do we choose certain texts not based on their quality but based on how they are a representation of how literature is used in certain facets of American culture? In regards to this last question, maybe some 1880’s Native American women’s literature could be included.

    To get any deeper into this debate, we should probably look at a sample textbook and some studies/surveys of textbooks (unfortunately, I don’t have time right now–I have to teach tomorrow).

  • I must disagree with both of you. I fear children would still be reading that slaves were happy and the Scopes trial proved evolution wrong if you guys got your way. Much of what the far Right dominated school boards, represented by Texas, want in textbooks simply isn’t supported empirically. Therefore, there is no rational reason to conform to their dictates. Let’s consider two battlegrounds as examples. The historical record proves the Southern states left the Union because slavery was threatened, not because they had enshrined ‘states’ rights.’ Though evolution remains a theory, creationism is just plain faith. In both cases, Southern states got away with imposing their backward views on the whole country because of the size of their orders and sheer orneriness for decades. I’m glad that is over.

    Nor does it seem to me that the content of textbooks would become less accurate by inclusion of material by groups omitted before — women and minorities. I suspect one can learn more, not less, about the world by reading a short story by Alice Walker than one by Jack London. And, she is a much better writer. The ‘only white men have brains’ prejudice may run very deep, but I’ve not found it true at all. If I had a $20 bill for every stupid white man I’ve known, I could retire. Perhaps you two have a problem reading women or nonwhites because deep down you believe we have nothing worthwhile to say because we are not men or white.

    I believe textbooks have gotten better, not worse, in regard to content.

  • I know which couple you are talking about, although I don’t have their names readily handy. As I recall, they were upset by some of the content they found in their son’s textbooks and made it their mission to personally review every book Texas schools might possibly adopt. They are heavy lobbyists and especially conservative in their views.

    I agree with you that the books have become reliant on flashy art and graphics (or, in math and science type texts, lots of photographs as well), adding even more neglect to the content. Gone are the days of simple text that would allow a restful sort of read. And then they wonder why the kids can’t focus?!

    And (I know from industry experience) the publishers will sooner choose a poorly written story that meets their guidelines–a story written by a minority, or a story that is half-baked but doesn’t use stereotypes or has, say, a wheelchair-bound protagonist–than really look for solid pieces of literature. They’re so busy counting “portrayals” that they hardly read the pieces at all.

    It’s true, I’m also all for multicultural portrayals, but the fact that books are now limited to even not having stories about mountains or the sea–because some kids might not live near mountains or the sea and thus might be at a “disadvantage”?! The idea is that they might not comprehend the story because of unfamiliar territory?! That’s like boxing students in and never letting them learn about anything beyond their own back yard! It’s just come to the point of ridiculous, and overall I believe the students are suffering for it.

  • Do you remember the name of that rich Texas couple that had a big influence on textbooks? I remember learning about them when I was training to be teacher. Supposedly, they had a huge impact on textbooks across the nation.

    I would like to add that textbooks are too expensive. Often I have heard the claim that we should have the best schools in the world. I agree. But contrast this notion of how our schools should be with the types of crummy, outdated, and limited materials and resources that the average teacher is provided with. In this wealthy country, one would think that classrooms would be filled with tons of excellent resources. That is just not the case (depending on how rich the school is, of course). It’s not like the people who create the source material for textbooks are making a lot of money (I think). It’s the publishers and distributors. I wonder if there is a way to stop the money grubbing textbook industry so that kids can have quality and variety in the materials that they work with.

    I agree that the focus has been taken away from the actual content–perhaps sometimes by over-emphasis on politically correct representations. I can think of a few crappy stories that are in my current American literature anthology that are seemingly in the book just because they deal with an issue that deals with diversity or because they are by minority authors–but there are plenty of pieces in the same category that are excellent. Maybe money is the culprit again. Could it be that textbook companies chince on the money they are willing to pay authors, and so include cheaper stories?

    The presentation of the anthologies of today is schizoid, with little windows of text and loud graphics/flashy layouts. It’s so noisy. I wish we had a textbook that just simply had text in it. This emphasis on MTV-style presentation perhaps also detracts from the quality of textbooks.

    I don’t have a problem with the inclusion of modern authors and young-adult fiction and multiculturalism, but a debate about the canon is for another posting.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks ZM and welcome!