Published Online: May 19, 1999
Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Book Smarts

Book Smarts

For the young pupil who daydreamed of exotic places and heroic deeds early in this century, a schoolbook could quench the imagination. Back then, history textbooks were plump with lively narratives about the glorious conquests of brave explorers and the noble struggles of the nation's founders to create a new republic.

One 1910 text likened Christopher Columbus' discovery of America to a providential mission. "Columbus believed that God had chosen him to go out as a missionary to these far-off lands. He kept that belief to the end. It gave a certain dignity to his work and made his life noble in many ways," began one story in Leading Facts of American History, published by Ginn & Co.

Other history books and school readers were filled with similar tales. They, too, led children on exciting expeditions through uncharted territory and to chance meetings with Indians in the vast wilderness. They exposed them to the great orations of Roman statesmen, the wonders of scientific discoveries and modern inventions, and the patriotic fervor that bound great men together to form a government of, by, and for the people.

It would be hard to find such passion in modern textbooks. Today, scholars, teachers, and parents decry books that they say are dull and lifeless, devoid of context, and prisoners of "adoption" processes that value political correctness over quality.

But school texts--the de facto national curriculum--have rarely enjoyed wholesale acceptance. More often than not, textbooks--especially those in subjects that now make up social studies and language arts--have been at the center of an ages-old tug of war over what becomes the "official knowledge" transmitted through them, and who gets to define it, says Michael W. Apple, a professor of curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Current issues surrounding texts--their ideology, their very status as central definers of what we should teach, even their very effectiveness and their design--echo from [the past]," Apple and his colleague, Linda K. Christian-Smith, write in their 1991 book The Politics of the Textbook.

Throughout history, textbooks have been the target of scathing criticism, violent protests, and censorship.

Long before the 20th century, schoolbooks had their detractors. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were among the first to lash out at "Northern textbooks," which generally portrayed the people of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as culturally inferior to New Englanders. In 1789, they aimed their objections at the geography book written by Jedidiah Morse, known as the "father of American geography." The popular text pronounced that the young men of Virginia, with the exception of a few affluent landowners and wise statesmen, "generally speaking are gamblers, cockfighters, and horse-jockies," among other unflattering stereotypes. The early opposition to Northern textbooks was a prelude to efforts a century later to keep books contrary to Southern ideals out of the schools, noted a 1947 article in the Journal of Southern History.

In what may have been the first full-scale textbook war in America, Irish Catholics fired shots in 1839. As the number of Irish immigrants swelled and they gained political clout, they fought back against textbooks with a distinctly Protestant bias, which prevailed in public and private schools alike and often portrayed the newcomers as dirty drunkards. Some texts described a rapidly changing New York City as "the sewer of Ireland," and warned that Roman Catholics were opposed to democracy and, therefore, should be prevented from serving in public office.

As the 20th century opened, Catholics--who by then had made a strong commitment to operating their own schools--represented a large enough market to force publishers to write versions of schoolbooks that were sensitive to their beliefs. The famous Dick and Jane readers were adapted to include such stories as "God in Our Home" and "Our Friends and God." Illustrations in other stories showed churches and religious symbols. Even the mainstream texts began recognizing Irish-American political leaders and the laborers from Ireland who had toiled to build the nation's infrastructure.


While the Irish Catholics in the North were battling the publishers over their derogatory portrayals, the South took another tack to force publishers' hands. Southern states began to remove control of textbook purchases from local school boards, partly to ensure that ideas they deemed threatening to Southern culture and their own view of history did not seep into schools, according to Apple. Thus began the practice of state adoption that still guides textbook purchases in 22 states.

The competition to get on state-approved adoption lists, and the potential to dominate a large market, gave publishers a powerful incentive to give those states what they wanted. Well into the middle of the 20th century, some texts still taught students below the Mason-Dixon line not about the Civil War, but the War of Northern Aggression. Some claimed slaves had been generally happy and well cared for, and glorified the agricultural life upon which the South's economy depended.

Subsequent social and political issues played out in later campaigns to reform textbooks. Beginning in the late 1930s, a social studies series elicited the almighty wrath of American industry for its critical view of capitalism and its recommendations for a national economic plan. Once the best-selling books, written by Harold Rugg of Columbia University, were pegged as communist propaganda by the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Legion, their brisk sales faded to a trickle.

"Textbooks have always reflected the values of the people in power," and incited the indignation of those who are not, says Joan DelFattore, a professor of English at the University of Delaware.

Once the Catholics' and Southerners' concerns were appeased, textbooks changed very little throughout the remainder of the first half of the century.

"From the 1890s on, what the texts said about American history would appear to children to be the truth," writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frances FitzGerald in her 1979 critique of American history texts, America Revised.

Despite their enduring and romanticized image, the books had serious flaws.

"In the 'Dick and Jane' readers I read in school, you couldn't find a child with black hair and brown eyes like me," recalls DelFattore, the author of What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America. "In the history books prior to 1970, the United States was always right, heroes were heroes, and George Washington did not own slaves."

In some cases, however, publishers were only complying with the law. Several states had enacted laws during the 1920s prohibiting the use of textbooks that did not present the nation's history in a positive light. Wisconsin forbade any schoolbook that "falsifies the facts regarding the war of independence, or the war of 1812, or which defames our nation's founders, or misrepresents the ideals and causes for which they struggled and sacrificed." Mississippi demanded textbooks be fair and impartial in their representation of the Civil War.

Oregon censored any textbook "which speaks slightingly of the founders of the republic, or of the men who preserved the union," wrote J.K. Flanders in the 1927 yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, the predecessor to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Flanders concluded that "it is hardly probable that a book which satisfies Oregon as giving sufficient credit to the 'men who preserved the union' will at the same time be regarded by Mississippi as 'fair and impartial,' or that a book which meets the requirements of Texas will at the same time be acceptable to Wisconsin."

Texts of that era perpetuated harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes, or failed to discuss whole segments of American society altogether.

In Muzzey's American History, first published in 1911 by Ginn, David Saville Muzzey's view that some races were inferior to others was evident. He described American Indians as a "treacherous, cruel people," and "Negroes" were "lazy." It wasn't until a half-century later, in the 1961 edition of the text, that author Muzzey, who died in 1965, suggested that blacks be included among the numbers of "Southern people," according to FitzGerald.

Such portrayals made textbooks a prime target during the civil rights movement and the subsequent fight for women's rights. Large-scale protests from minority groups started to wear down publishers.

In 1962, civil rights organizations were successful in forcing school boards in Detroit and Newark, N.J., to withdraw racially biased texts and set new policies for reviewing all materials used in the school system. Other districts followed suit.

Like the Irish-Americans and Southerners of earlier eras, the latest advocates realized the power of school texts in advancing their causes. Soon followed, in FitzGerald's words, "the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place in American schoolbooks."

Later on, Hispanics, homosexuals, and other groups tired of being absent from or maligned in texts rallied for their own fair representation.

"There are crusades for women's rights and crusades against communism. There are crusades for conservative causes and for liberal causes. There are crusades for a better environment. There are crusades for and against sex education. There are crusades by various ethnic groups for recognition of their cultures," publishing executive John H. Williamson wrote in "The Textbook in American Society," an overview of a 1979 conference that brought together scholars and publishers to discuss the problems of the textbook.

"Those who develop learning materials for the schools," he continued, "know that all of these groups have one thing in common--the conviction that textbooks and related materials are a major vehicle for furthering their crusades. Aware of the sensibilities of various groups, publishers go to great lengths to avoid offending. But they cannot escape."


To a great extent, critics of today's textbooks blame publishers precisely for their attempts to satisfy all groups. "Texts are so badly overstuffed and so diced that they are in places unintelligible," argues Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council. That group was established more than a decade ago to monitor and lobby for improving the quality of history, social studies, and humanities textbooks.

The revisions and compromises made along the way are evident in current best sellers. In United States, a 1997 5th grade book from Macmillan/McGraw-Hill's best-selling "Adventures in Time and Space" series, Columbus no longer takes center stage. Long a prominent introductory figure in history books--in 1867 he was even featured in the title of one text, A History of the United States of America: From the Discovery of the Continent by Christopher Columbus to the Present Time--he is relegated in the 1997 text to the sixth chapter, after dozens of pages outlining Native American civilizations. And in the few pages devoted to his explorations, Columbus shares the spotlight with the Taino, the native people who greeted him when he landed at San Salvador.

Science and mathematics texts, while undergoing alterations to reflect discoveries or innovations in those fields, were long considered largely immune from philosophical battles. In science, discussion of the theory of evolution has been the most persistent point of contention. ("Scopes and the Clash over Science.")

Most arguments over science and math books have emerged in more recent decades. Not until the late 1950s and early 1960s, after the National Science Foundation was enlisted by Congress to rewrite curricula in those subjects, did those texts undergo significant restructuring to conform with what was being called the "New Math" and the "New Science." ("The Race to Space Rocketed NSF Into Classrooms.")


The academic-standards movement that began in the late 1980s spawned further dramatic changes in math and science textbooks. With few exceptions, publishers rewrote their books to incorporate the new standards, which tended to emphasize both theory and hands-on experimentation.

Eventually, the movement awakened those academics, policymakers, and parents who favor traditional approaches that emphasize teaching specific content over exploratory learning. In recent years, the debate over math and science instruction has been especially heated.

To satisfy both points of view, publishers today must produce books that find a balance between imparting skills and developing conceptual understanding.

However intense the debates over math and science books, the humanities remain the focus of sharpest contention.

The changes in history and social studies schoolbooks have never rested quietly with critics who argue that attempts at rectifying past omissions have gone too far.

For example, in Chicago after World War I, the Hearst newspapers and the mayor objected to what they perceived as pro-British bias in some books. The Sons of the American Revolution filed a complaint with the California school board in 1947 over "unpatriotic" themes in the Building America textbook series.

In 1974, parents and other residents in Kanawha County, W.Va., shut down the schools to prevent their children from being exposed to social studies textbooks they deemed "godless" and "dirty." In particular, they protested the texts' treatment of evolution and the lack of clear moral lessons. More than 12,000 people attended anti-textbook rallies that ended after one protester was shot and several schools were bombed.

In 1980, Mel and Norma Gabler of Texas, who became nationally known critics of what they see as left-wing bias in textbooks, objected to publishers' failure to portray women in domestic roles despite statistics showing that half of mothers still worked only inside the home at that time.

The backlash has also been aimed at literature and language arts texts, which have been accused of undermining the classics to make room for a more diverse group of modern authors.

Critics have also voiced their objections to what they see as a slackening of academic standards and the texts' submission to "faddish" instructional methods, such as whole language.

But publishers have long defended the changes in textbooks as meeting market demands.

"As the standard, scriptural authority, the textbook is forever inviting the attacks of the revolutionary who has now learned more than what is in the textbook," Williamson, the publishing executive, wrote two decades ago.

Industry officials continue to echo Williamson's view that they cannot escape the almost impossibly complex pressures placed on them.

They are bound to the strict policies of nearly half the states, which, early in the century, enacted adoption policies requiring local districts to spend state money only on texts that meet the state's strict criteria. ("The State of Curriculum.") Those criteria can range from dictating the number of authors from various minority groups to subjecting the books to readability formulas that strive to keep the writing at an appropriate level of difficulty.

Such strictures, combined with the need to recoup the millions of dollars companies invest in creating texts, rule what the publishers do.

"Few teachers and few publishers or authors consciously call for textbooks that are too easy for learners, that involve little writing, that are overly illustrated," James Squire, the vice president of Ginn, wrote in "The Textbook in American Society" in 1979. "But given the high-risk investment decisions ... few publishers will or can consciously risk exclusion from adoption procedures by ignoring widespread customer preferences, however they might wish to do so."

The industry's critics counter that the companies are too quick to compromise rigorous academic principles to raise profit margins. The single voice of authority, even if strongly opinionated, that gave previous generations of texts credibility, they say, has been replaced by heavily edited, committee-written texts that may display the names of several prominent scholars but little of their original work.

Writing in the foreword to A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco, a 1988 analysis by Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, A. Graham Down, then the executive director of the Council for Basic Education, observed: "The public regards textbooks as authoritative, accurate, and necessary. And teachers rely on them to organize lessons and structure subject matter. But the current system of textbook adoption has filled our schools with Trojan horses--glossily covered blocks of paper whose words emerge to deaden the minds of our nation's youth, and make them enemies of learning."

At the same time, a consolidation of the industry in recent years may be further limiting schools' options. The field has been whittled down since 1979, when some 400 companies, 49 of them considered major players, were writing textbooks. Now, fewer than half a dozen publishers dominate the $3 billion-a-year market. That worries those who have studied the impact that the structure of the industry has had on the choices available to schools.

Concentration in the industry is nothing new, however. For much of the first half of the century, the American Book Co. was the only major publishing house catering to the school market. Created by the merger of three companies in the late 19th century, American Book had a lock on three-fourths of the market. The new company continued to publish the venerable McGuffey Readers. Those readers and the other texts published by the company essentially became the national curriculum, some historians say.

By the 1940s, that book trust had dissolved, and concern over public education was resulting in more money for educational materials. The next two decades proved to be a boon for the industry, which allowed hundreds of smaller publishers to flourish.

The demands placed on publishers continue to grow. With the current focus on standards and assessments, states are shopping for instructional materials that meet more specific criteria for content. While the needs of the largest adoption states--California, Texas, and Florida--wield the most influence on publishing companies, textbooks must also be marketable to thousands of other schools and districts throughout the country.


To some observers, the market is ripe for new approaches.Not far in the future, DelFattore predicts, publishers will have to diversify and find a way to meet the varied demands--through "niche" publishing, by producing more supplemental materials for teachers, or by changing the nature of textbooks themselves.

In the next century, technology is expected to transform the development and use of instructional materials. Some states, such as Texas, already have adopted computer software that can be used instead of traditional textbooks. And the Internet has made it easier for teachers to supplement books with a virtually unlimited array of other resources, such as historical documents and news accounts.

As technology continues to advance and makes production even faster and less expensive, schools may be able to customize their own books, DelFattore says. Through "modular" publishing, educators could select from a menu of chapters or sections to satisfy their particular appetites for topics, instructional approaches, even ideologies. Colleges have already begun to tap into such technology.

"Publishers might have three possible chapters on slavery or Vietnam," says the University of Delaware professor. "Like modular furniture, districts could mix and match, and choose which version of which chapters suits their tastes."

Such a future might solve some of the problems of creating books that are as acceptable to adoption committees in California and Texas as they are to local school boards in Boise, Idaho; Bloomington, Ind.; or New York City. But it is not likely to ease the concerns of scholars and others who fear that, without a common history or national identity, the very essence of the United States and its credo, E pluribus unum--out of many, one--will be lost.

PHOTO: "The Indian was a treacherous and cruel enemy, but a steadfast friend."
—An American History.
PHOTO: "At night, before you go to sleep, think whether you have done anything that was wrong during the day, and pray to God to forgive you."
—The McGuffey Reader
PHOTO: 'Dick and Jane' readers, despite their enduring image, had serious flaws.
PHOTO: At a news conference with National Education Association officials in 1974, Gloria Steinem announces a plan to remove sexist portrayals of individuals from U.S. textbooks.

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 36-41

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