Education Opinion

Textbooks: ‘There Has Never Been a Golden Age’

By Edgar H. Schuster — March 06, 1985 6 min read

The latest discovery of the textbook critics is that editors of literature anthologies change words, omit passages, and even sometimes rewrite parts of literary works without clearly indicating such editing. In November 1984, the National Council of Teachers of English passed a resolution opposing abridgment or adaptation as a form of censorship, not mentioning that such “censorship” has been a common practice since long before the organization was founded. Speaking as a person who has been writing school textbooks for some 25 years, I welcome both lay and professional overseers to the field of my labors. Editing without notice is reprehensible; reform is long overdue.

What offends me, however, is the lack of historical perspective of so many of the critics and their enormously oversimplified notions of the realities of textbook-making. That there are serious deficiencies in books for schools and that we are not in a golden age of the American textbook, I concede. But there have always been serious deficiencies and there has never been a golden age.

While textbook critics have always been with us, much of the current attention stems from remarks of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, backed by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell’s widely disseminated comment that textbooks were being “dumbed down.” Mr. Bell also noted specifically that “the content of the textbooks has been declining dramatically.”

Passing lightly over the irony of the fact that a society that permits its children to watch television nearly seven hours a day should hold bookmakers responsible for dumb kids, just how far down have the textbooks really been dumbed? Mass-market textbooks will never move far from the mass, yet they should not be unjustly condemned. Below are two passages from John E. Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, a book that was the best-selling text of its kind in the last generation. One of the passages was published in 1948 (when the text was called Warriner’s Handbook of English; the other appeared in 1977. Which passage has been “dumbed down”?

Your own name is a noun. The name of your school is a noun. House is a noun. The names of things which you cannot see or touch are nouns; for instance, compassion, freedom, length, kindness, justice, equality. These words do not name tangible things, but they do name qualities of things. The name of a quality or an idea is just as truly a noun as the name of anything which has size or shape.

Your own name is a noun. The name of your home town is a noun. Book is a noun. The names of things which you cannot touch or see are nouns; for instance, strength, happiness, emotion, thought, meaning, width. Although these words do not name objects, they do name qualities or ideas. The name of a quality or an idea is just as truly a noun as the name of anything which has size or shape.

If you can tell which of these is the 1948 version and which the 1977, you win a subsecretaryship in the Education Department. (Most guessers decide that the first passage is 1948 because of the slightly more sophisticated vocabulary--that is, “compassion, equality, tangible.” They are wrong.) Notice that even the numbers of sentences and words per sentence in each version are nearly identical. Textbook critics ought to be relieved and gratified to find the wisdom of their own generation passed so directly to their children.

If we find here a leveling out rather than a dumbing down, there are still other books that seem to have been “smartened up.” For example, the most popular literature anthology of former Secretary Bell’s youth-Adventures in American Literature, published in 1941 by Harcourt, Brace and Co.,-represented the Revolutionary and Romantic periods of American literature with the following selections (among others): a 1,500-word excerpt from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlet, a cut version of the “Declaration of Independence,” Edgar Allan Poe’s brief and simple ''The Cask of Amontillado,” one story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and nothing by Herman Melville.

An American literature anthology written in 1982 and meant for the same audience presents (among other selections): the whole of Paine’s 3,500-word “Crisis 1" essay; the complete “Declaration of Independence"; Poe’s ''The Fall of the House of Usher,” a much longer and more complex story than “Amontillado"; two Hawthorne stories; and the complete, unedited version of Melville’s novella, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

This is not an isolated instance. It is generally true that the high-school literature anthologies of the ‘80’s are written at a higher level of sophistication than those of a generation or more ago, and this trend clearly predates Secretary Bell and the excellence commission.

The issue of censorship must be seen in all of its complexity. Today, textbook editors and authors face extremely complicated dilemmas forcing them to seek Solomon-like solutions that still won’t please everyone.

Suppose that an editor is making an anthology for high school juniors that will survey the range of American literature. In the modern period, the work of Flannery O’Connor surely ought to be represented, for the lifeblood of our literature runs through her veins. Moreover, she is among the greatest writers of her time and is certainly the most deeply moral.

In rereading her work, however, an editor quickly discovers that many of her stories are over the heads of the 16-year-old readers who will be using the anthology. Furthermore, among the stories that are accessible, most contain extreme violence and use the word “nigger,” often frequently. (O’Connor, of course, is not using the term as a racial slur but sometimes her characters are.) There are some very early O’Connor stories that suffer neither of these defects, but they are so uncharacteristic that they might have been written by someone else.

Consider now the alternatives for the editor:

• Print a story that violates standards of good taste.

• Print a story, making editorial changes that violate the integrity of the story.

• Print a very early story, which violates the integrity of the author’s artistic identity.

• Print a story that students will not understand.

• Omit O’Connor altogether, damaging the integrity of the textbook.

The N.C.T.E. and some new critics choose to call the second of these alternatives “censorship,” but in a larger sense all are censorship, since they all result in suppression of an author’s work.

The first alternative amounts to censorship because no publisher who wishes to stay in business will choose it. The “standards of good taste,” incidentally, are not ordained by publishers but by the society they serve. The fourth alternative is also effectively censorship, for a story the audience cannot understand might as well not be printed; indeed, teachers generally will not assign such stories and books that use them go out of print.

This illustrates the real-world decisions that textbookmakers frequently face: trying to make the least offensive moral choice given a set of choices all of which are distasteful. Seen in this light, omissions or changes in an author’s original work—especially when permission is granted-do not seem so terribly censorious after all. In fact, one can easily imagine that authors themselves might prefer this choice to most of the others.

The only escape from the dilemmas of censorship is not to write textbooks in the first place. That is a moral choice, too. It ought to carry with it the responsibility to think long and deep and very clearly before criticizing those who make different choices.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 1985 edition of Education Week