'T' is for 'Texas Textbooks'

The Lone Star State mandates the teaching of patriotism—and promotes ignorance in the process.

03.14.10 10:38 PM ET

Here is a newsflash from Texas: The conservative majority of the Texas State Board of Education adopted new guidelines for social-studies textbooks that reflect their conservative political views. The new guidelines will emphasize the Christian beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Students in Texas will be expected to learn about the emergence of the conservative movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The new textbooks are supposed to promote patriotism and respect for the “free-enterprise system.”

“Having a public agency decide which textbooks are right and what facts should be added or deleted is nonsensical. It is equivalent to having a public agency review movies and tell us which we will be allowed to see at taxpayer expense.”

No surprise here. For many years, the Texas state board has been telling textbook publishers what should appear in the books that the state will buy for its students. Nineteen other states decide which textbooks will qualify for “adoption” in their public schools. Books that are not approved by the state board cannot be purchased with state funds. This is a very powerful lever to bring about revisions in the textbooks. The two most consequential of the so-called adoption states are Texas and California, because they have the largest number of students and therefore the most clout with publishers. When Texas or California speak, publishers listen and change their textbooks to comply.

Typically, the Texas board demands that the textbooks, especially in history and science, toe the conservative line, while California insists that the textbooks it buys for grades K-8 comply with its “social content” guidelines, which require positive representations of all groups in society. Unlike California, which buys textbooks statewide for grades K-8, Texas buys textbooks en masse for all grades, so it has a lot of influence on high-school textbooks.

Given the strong conservative hold on the elected state board in Texas, it is not surprising that the board demands that its textbooks are patriotic and respectful of religion. Given the strong liberal character of California politics, it is not surprising that its state guidelines demand equal time and respectful representation of gender groups, ethnic and racial groups, and all minorities.

In 2003, I described the absurdities of the textbook adoption process in a book titled The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn. I showed how all sorts of groups from different ends of the political spectrum have used the textbook adoptions to impose their agenda. Feminists went before state boards to demand the excision of all words, phrases, and images that were offensive to them; consequently, textbook publishers gathered long lists of words that were banned from textbooks (and tests, as well). Thus, children are spared ever having to see the word “actress” or “landlady” or “cowboy,” and they will never see a picture of a mom baking cookies.

For many years, the Texas board was swayed by conservative groups that insisted that words and phrases must be deleted from reading textbooks if they contained anything that criticized their idea of family values. They fought to remove stories about witchcraft, fantasy, disobedient children, permissive child rearing, as well as anything that criticized the nation and its laws. Any stories in which bad behavior went unpunished were excised. Guidelines in California and elsewhere discouraged the representation of poverty in poor nations, or a photograph of a cow that displayed her udders (too sexual), or references to birthday cake or hot dogs (not nutritious). Images that showed old people looking old or infirm or needing a cane or a walker were forbidden, on grounds that they were stereotypical. No, old people must be portrayed as fit and vigorous, preferably running a marathon or climbing a ladder to nail down a few loose roof tiles.

When I was finishing The Language Police, I struggled to figure out a way to break the iron grip of the adoption process. After all, textbooks written to satisfy the right in Texas and the left in California were then foisted on the nation’s children. In some cases, outright falsities were being peddled because some pressure group was strong enough to have its way with the state board.

I concluded that the adoption process would always be politicized and that there was no way to improve it. I concluded that it should be abolished. It makes no sense to have an elected or appointed school board deciding which facts belong in history textbooks and which scientific ideas are valid. They do not have the qualifications to do this and they should not have the power to do it. No matter how many experts they call upon, this is a foolish way to revise textbooks.

I argued that the adoption process should be abolished altogether. The job of the state board should be to evaluate which classroom materials seem to be most effective in helping students learn the subject and to make that information public.

Having a public agency decide which textbooks are right and what facts should be added or deleted is nonsensical. It is equivalent to having a public agency review movies and tell us which we will be allowed to see at taxpayer expense. Those who don’t agree with the ratings can see whatever they want, but on their own dime.

I proposed that teachers and districts should be free to choose whatever books or textbooks or other learning materials they thought best to reach the state’s academic standards.

The major textbook companies rejected my idea because they are accustomed to the existing system. They dominate the existing marketplace. They don’t want a free market, where they would have to compete with dozens of other book publishers.

The only losers are the current generation of students, who will be treated to sanitized and inaccurate history textbooks. And our society, which will have another generation of citizens who were never taught to consider different points of view about issues.

Diane Ravitch is the author, most recently, of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic).