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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

The Early Days: Encountering the Textbook Crisis

It was about twenty years ago. I was a newspaper reporter sent to Richmond to attend a special meeting called by the Virginia State School Board. Someone on the board had looked at the literature book most used in Virginia high schools. It contained “Romeo and Juliet.” That seemed a reasonable choice. But a board member who knew the play well discovered that whenever Shakespeare used a difficult or arcane word the publisher changed it, without noting in the text that a change had been made.

Children in Virginia, and around the country (this was a popular textbook), thought they were reading Shakespeare, teachers thought they were teaching Shakespeare, when they were actually dealing with a bastardized version.

That got the school board members attention. They looked at other textbooks, especially in history and science. What they saw upset their collective stomachs. So they called a meeting and invited leading publishers to attend. The idea: to do something to improve American textbooks. Members of the national press covered the event. I was there too.

Like most parents, I’d never actually read any of my children’s textbooks, but I had looked at a son’s world history and, as a writer, been appalled. My son reassured me, “Mom, don’t worry, the teacher hates the book too and hardly uses it.” I was less than thrilled with that response.

As to the Richmond meeting? I thought I’d fallen down a rabbit hole. Nothing made sense. The publishers sent sales people. Their job: to promote their books. They spoke an arcane language-education jargon-the school board members tried to talk common sense. Afterwards I spoke to a board member who shook her head in dismay. Nothing had been accomplished.

I went home and started reading about textbooks. Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised compared current American history textbooks with those used early in the 20th century. The “old” books had engaging narrative and were written to high standards. The “new” texts were dreary, with mistakes, and obtuse content. As to history’s stories? They were gone.

Fitzgerald wasn’t the only one writing about the situation. Diane Ravitch’s now-classic article, “Tot Sociology,” described history curricula that focused on litanies of facts and trivia and an “expanding horizons” concept of learning that didn’t work. Ravitch called for “real books” in classrooms. Harriet Tyson in A Conspiracy of Good Intentions described the way contemporary textbooks are produced-an endeavor led by business and marketing decisions. Tyson told an appalling tale of glitzy books and shabby content.

And so I decided to write a U.S. history for young readers. I would go back to a classic narrative model. Given the almost universal contempt for what was out there; my belief that reading skills are honed on readable books; and some background in U.S. history and government; I thought I could do a fair job. I was sure that if I did, textbook publishers and school adoption committees would all fall at my feet.

Umm, I was in for a surprise. (To be continued.)
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