History Curricula Stir Controversy in Largest States

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In a textbook-adoption process that experts predict could "herald a new generation of social-studies texts" nationwide, a California curriculum-review commission has rejected the history and social-studies texts of nearly all the publishers who submitted books for review.

The state Curriculum Commission voted July 20 to approve only 10 books from two publishers--a kindergarten-through-8th-grade series produced by Houghton Mifflin Co., and an 8th-grade book published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

But even those works were criticized by spokesmen for religious and ethnic groups, who complained of omissions, inaccuracies, and misrepresentations.

The adoption of new history and social-studies textbooks in California has national implications because that state controls an estimated 11 percent of the nation's $1.7-billion textbook market. The textbooks up for adoption this year are the first to be approved under a new curriculum framework approved by the state three years ago for history and the social sciences.

The framework departs significantly from the way those subjects are now taught in many states, thus making it difficult for textbook publishers to sell the same books elsewhere. Some textbook publishers refrained from overhauling their entire series of books to meet California's new standards in order to weigh whether the effort would be worth the expense, according to observers.

By rejecting most of the books submitted, commission members signaled their intent to stick with the new curriculum.

"I think it sends a very strong message to the publishing industry that California means business," said Charlotte Crabtree, who chaired the commission's history and social-sciences committee.

The final decision on the books will be made by the state board of education in October.

Stories 'Well Told'

Commissioners said the newly approved textbooks differ from more traditional texts--including some of those rejected last month--in a number of respects. They include in-depth discussions of world religions, for example, and attempt to interweave geographical studies throughout.

They abandon the traditional "near to far" approach of many elementary-school social-studies texts, which calls for focusing attention on a child's immediate environment and slowly expanding to include other cultures. In its place, students are exposed to more history, sooner.

And the historical material is presented in what backers say is a more engaging narrative style than curel15lrently exists--"a story well told," as the commissioners put it.

under the new framework, a key feature of the books must also be an attempt to focus attention on the contributions and cultures of a variety of ethnic groups.

But critics--including some commission members--said the books do not go far enough toward that end. In letters and in public hearings this month, they urged the commissioners to reject all of the books before them.

Joyce King, an associate professor of education at Santa Clara University and a commissioner, said the new books contain "racial stereotyping, inaccuracies, distortions, omissions, justifications, and trivialization of unethical and inhumane social practices, including racial slavery."

She noted, for example, that one of the books asks students to imagine that they are on an African plain two million years ago. According to the text, they see "dark-skinned" people--intended to represent Neanderthal man--pound a bloody bone and "eat the red marrow oozing from" it.

A white Cro-Magnon man, in contrast, is depicted dressed in buckskin clothing with captions pointing to his healthy teeth, clean-shaven face, tools, and warm, practical clothes.

"Yet," said Ms. King, one of three commissioners voting to reject all books submitted, "the text says Cro-Magnon man thrived in all parts of the world."

Cultural Prejudice Alleged

"What 11-year-olds will take away from this is a kind of prejudice that exists in society about the cultural superiority of whites and cultural inferiority of African-American history," Ms. King argued

Similar kinds of complaints were expressed by representatives of Jewish, Moslem, Chinese-American, and gay groups, among others.

Jewish leaders, for example, noted that one book drops all discussion of Judaism after the birth of Christ, even though some of that religion's most important ethical development took place much later.

In response, the commissioners agreed to ask publishers to alter some of the religious aspects in two of the books.

"A lot of these people would like to see things written from a particular point of view," said Dan Chernow, a commission member. "These textbooks are not ideal, but they're a major step forward over what currently exists in the classroom."

Ms. Crabtree added that some of the books devote considerable space to the development of African states during the Middle Ages and provide "rich descriptions of the cultural traditions in Africa from which the slaves had been plucked to come to America."

"For every concern raised, we could find so many strengths in the materials that would make them a strong addition," she said.

Few Responses

While California school districts are not required to buy only state-approved textbooks, they are alel15llowed to spend only 30 percent of their state funds toward the purchase of unapproved books. And many school districts gear major textbook purchases to the state's textbook-adoption schedule, Mr. Chernow said.

Over all, California school districts are expected to spend an estimated $200 million on new history and social-science textbooks over the next three or four years.

Commissioners expressed disappointment, however, that more publishers did not respond to the new framework. Of the nine companies submitting books, only Houghton Mifflin completely overhauled its entire series to meet California standards. One book submitted by another publisher was divided in half, with one part adhering to California's framework and the rest mir3roring other state curricula, according to Ms. Crabtree.

"This framework is so totally different from the rest of the country," said Donald A. Eklund, vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, "that publishers have to look at the probability of their return on the investment."

He explained that publishers would not be able to sell the same books in states that use a more traditional approach to social studies.

Under California law, publishers can submit new texts for approval in another two years, rather than waiting out the eight-year cycle for the next formal adoption of history and social-science textbooks.

Commissioners said they were uncertain whether publishers would come back in two years with revised texts.

Vol. 09, Issue 40

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