Curriculum

Calif. Considers Adding Gays’ Contributions to Textbooks

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 25, 2006 3 min read
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A bill that has been sent to the floor of the California Senate would require textbooks used in public schools to include information on the roles and contributions of gay people throughout history, a move that could affect the content of instructional materials throughout much of the country.

The measure would help build tolerance of diverse groups by students in California schools, according to its supporters. But opponents say it bows to the demands of yet another special-interest group and puts inappropriate demands on schools to add to an already vast list of required content.

Sen. Sheila James Kuehl, a Democrat, introduced the bill, which would revise two existing statutes: one that prohibits adverse depictions of people based on “race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, or handicap” and another that calls for textbooks to contain information representing the state’s general population.

The bill would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to that list of characteristics and in turn require that they be included in textbooks.

Statutes Exist

Instructional materials for K-12 students would be required to portray people and groups accurately and “include the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America,” the bill states.

“According to the textbooks now, no gay person ever made any contribution to anything in California,” said Ms. Kuehl, whose biographical information on her Web site describes her as the first openly gay person to be elected to the California legislature. “We require that textbooks reflect the diversity of California.”

The changes are reasonable “given the fact that these statutes already exist,” added Sen. Kuehl, who was first elected to the legislature in 1994. “It’s not like we’re making this up suddenly just for our little minority group.”

Ms. Kuehl said that when students learn about Langston Hughes or James Baldwin, for example, they should be taught that not only were they African-American writers, but that they were also homosexual.

Her proposal, however, has been met with criticism from some colleagues in the Senate, experts on textbook policies, and conservative groups.

Sen. Dick Ackerman, a Republican and the lone dissenter on the Senate judiciary committee that approved the measure, said it is politically motivated and would open the door for more special interest groups to make demands on school curricula.

A group representing Hindus sued the state school board and education officials earlier this year for what it deems to be derogatory content on the portrayal of the religion in lessons on ancient India. (“Hindu Foundation Sues Calif. Over Middle School Textbooks,” March 29, 2006)

“We have students who don’t know where the state capital is, or even who the president is,” Mr. Ackerman said. “To focus on issues of less importance is misdirected.”

California is the largest among the 22 so-called adoption states, meaning that they require districts to select textbooks off a state-approved list if they want the state to pay for them. Because of its size and the potential for large profits, publishers often tailor the content of instructional materials to California’s detailed requirements. Those texts are then marketed to the rest of the country as well.

Identity Politics?

Observers of the textbook-adoption process have assailed the seemingly growing influence of interest groups on academic content.

“It’s more identity politics playing out in textbooks,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council, a New York City-based research group that has monitored history-textbook adoptions in California since the 1980s. “Are we advancing history in any way if we reimagine historical figures [as homosexuals] or throw into high relief minor figures, insignificant figures, trivia that crowds out the good stuff or the important stuff?”

But Ms. Kuehl argues that the bill is an extension of the state’s Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act, passed in 2000 to prevent discrimination of students based on their sexual orientation.

“Research shows that if you want to create proactively an environment that is safe for students, one way is to portray people in textbooks” who are like them, she said.

Mr. Ackerman, though, fears that if the measure passes, it would lead to inaccurate portrayals of some historical figures in the name of following the requirement.

“I debated someone the other day [on this issue] who said that Socrates was gay,” Mr. Ackerman said. “How do you even know that, and is it more important to know what Socrates taught as opposed to what preferences he may have had?”

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