In her fascinating 2003 book, The Language Police, Diane Ravitch chronicles the dumbing down of our public education system through the pervasive and insidious censorship of textbooks. She lamented the homogenization of education brought about largely by the incessant quest to remove controversial topics, words and phrases from the educational process. Of particular concern to Ravitch was her conclusion that history texts are among the most profoundly infected with political correctness; leading her to note that “in no other subject do American seniors score as low as they do in U.S. history.”
Oft times heated disputes between conservatives and liberals continue to surface when boards of education — especially in the larger states — consider changes to textbook language.
Most recently, this problem boiled over in Texas, the nation’s second-largest consumer of textbooks for public school students. Last month, the Lone Star state’s elected board of education met and agreed preliminarily to a number of changes to American history texts that will be acceptable for use in its public schools over the next decade. The changes are expected to be finalized when the board meets in May; but the fireworks have already started.
Among the more controversial decisions recommended by the Republican-dominated board:
In all, the school board has made more than 100 amendments to the state’s history texts. Some of these, such as declining to elevate “hip-hop” to the status of being a cultural benefit, and properly describing our country as a “republic” rather than a “democracy,” make a great deal of sense. Others, however (downplaying the importance of one of our great Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, because he did not appear to be sufficiently religious), do not.
More troubling than is the process of crafting textbooks to reflect particular views or so as to highlight those individuals, political activities, or institutions one elected official prefers over others, is the fact that advocates on both sides of these proceedings appear to misunderstand what is the purpose of a history textbook in the first place.
American history textbooks are not intended to be, and should not be written or amended to serve as, laundry lists of favored cultural events or personalities. They are a tool, and not necessarily the most important tool, in a school system’s “toolbox” of instruments with which to ensure that students understand what our nation was and is; and what is was intended to be. Whether we today like Thomas Jefferson or not (I happen to be among those who do), he was one of the most important figures of our formative era; and diminishing his role distorts history. And whether we like or disdain organizations such as the NRA (as a member of its board of directors, I am a strong supporter), its role in the modern political era probably is not among those critical to include in a history text.
Much more important than these fights over inclusion or exclusion, should be concerns over the education, training and teaching methods of those tasked with actually teaching from those textbooks – our teachers.