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Texts Said To 'Distort' the Future

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The institute's analysts looked at how 63 high-school social-studies books covered so-called "limits-to-growth" issues, which include energy and food supply, population, and other trends that will influence the quality of life in the future.

The review was conducted as part of the institute's "Visions of the Future" program and was written by Jane Newitt, associate director of the program.

Begun in January 1982, the program is an effort to improve instruction about the future in American schools and colleges. The institute is a nonprofit research and education organization that studies global trends in the growth and supply of resources.

The report outlines possible criteria for balanced coverage of these issues. In the area of population growth, for example, it recommends that textbooks use up-to-date information that suggests both the general leveling-off of population growth and the variation in growth rates in less developed nations. If the textbook provides only cursory population information, it should acquaint the student with basic demographic methods about the factors that influence growth rates.

And in the area of economic development, the author says, "global relationships should not be presented in terms of a 'widening gap' between a few rich countries and a great mass of poor ones." This concept, she argues, is "of secondary importance, relating to the extremes and to income distribution within some middle- and low-income countries."

Similarly, according to the report, textbooks should not suggest that poor countries will become economically healthier if rich countries curb their growth and consumption. On all such topics, the analysis suggests, students should be presented with a view that includesthe divergent opinions held by experts and uses the most current information.

Limited Effectiveness

According to the report, however, too few textbooks follow this model. Hence, their effectiveness in covering complex global phenomena is limited. "... [A]n astonishing amount of misinformation and sloppy writing appears in these expensively produced volumes, and it is not uncommon to find real or apparent internal contradictions," the author writes.

One example, she says, is found in a text that states that 149 of every 1,000 Indian babies die each year; one paragraph later, the text says that between one-third and one-half of babies in India die each year.

In general, the report concludes, "no combination of basal history, geography, civics, and economics texts fully meets the need" of students to receive a "solid, elementary education on the demographic, economic, scientific, and other basics that underlie 'global issues'." The author notes, however, that specialized materials, which were not included in the study, may help fill the gap.


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