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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Choosing Blindly: The Challenge of Textbook Selection

In 1964, renowned physicist Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the California Curriculum Commission to help pick new science textbooks. Feynman, a Nobel prizewinner, lived in California and his children attended public schools, so he agreed to serve on the commission. Soon, 300 pounds of textbooks were delivered to his door. He installed 17 feet of shelving, began reading, and went through each of the submitted textbooks: the only one on the adoption committee to do so.
Of the experience, he wrote, "It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden–BOOM–there would be a big explosion from the volcano. The reason was that the books were lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, they would use examples that were almost okay. . .but everything was a little bit ambiguous. They were faking it. They were teaching something that they [the writers] didn't understand."

April 28, 2014 1:41 PM EDT
Hello, Ms. Hakim,
I am writing to tell you thank you for your efforts to create readable text books. I heard about your work from a fellow home schooling mother, a friend of mine. She spoke very highly about your History of US series and I stumbled upon it last week at the library. I have begun to read it in an attempt to gain knowledge for myself and to see if it is worthy of sharing with my children. We love home schooling and are so thankful to find great sources of readable and accurate history books! We love libraries and are growing quite a library at home because we are all obsessed with books! :)
Besides a thank you and encouragement to you from the perspective of a very grateful mother, I wanted to ask you a question and point out what I feel is an error. I am glad that you have a blog and have provided a way to contact you. I just began reading vol. 1 in the History of US series and I am on page 10. I do enjoy your writing style so far, very much. However, I have to take issue with those that call our great nation a democracy. I love that you point out that we have our flaws as a country, but have usually been able to correct them. However I disagree with the reason that you gave and it is not just that you happened to use the wrong word! Why do you call the USA a democracy? As this article that you write states, writing about things we don't understand undermines our credibility. From my studies, I have gained the insights that we are not a democracy. We are a republic, we exist because we function by rule of law and not rule of people. We are not a nation where power belongs to the people, it belongs to the laws that the people erect. Our founders agreed on a set of laws that protect our natural rights, given to us by God. Maybe you don't believe in God or He doesn't guide your world view? Our founders believed in Him. They knew that God, not the constitution is the supreme law of the land. God gives rights to man, this new government was established to finally protect everyone's rights that they are born with. Our children need to understand this great distinction and I hope that you will perhaps think of correcting that error? They need to know that our founders believed in the Bible and they believed that God was the giver and protector of man's rights, laws are merely there to protect those God given rights. Whether or not our society sees the world this way now or not, they need to know that our laws are based on the Judeo-Christian world view and that the Bible was their textbook and they believed that God guided everything that our founders achieved. As historians we need to understand their perspective. As a writer of history, I feel you are doing an injustice to our children by not including what I feel is correct information about how our nation was founded and what we truly are, a Republic and not a Democracy! I hope this feedback from one of your readers is helpful. I will keep reading!
All the Best to you!
- Suzanne Montague
April 28, 2014 4:16 PM EDT
Suzanne, Thanks so much for your comments. This should be an area of discussion not conflict. I have no problem seeing our nation as both a democracy (where we elect our leaders) and also a republic (where they deal with most of the legislation for us). As for God, the founders were clear in approving the First Amendment, which gives everyone the right to believe or not believe as heart and head lead them. It's a philosophy that has made us a nation that has never fought a religious war.
In Virginia, Patrick Henry introduced a bill into the General Assembly that called for Christian worship for all. It almost passed, but it didn't. In its place, James Madison guided Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom. It separated church and state. Most of the founders were eager to limit government authority. Jefferson writing to Madison from France said, "It is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature with the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions." George Washington may have best captured the spirit of the founding generation in his Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island. Our first president wrote, "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy -- a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens..." Jefferson's biographer, Merrill Peterson, wrote this of the third president, "He wished for himself, for his countrymen, not freedom from religion but freedom to pursue religion wherever intelligence and conscience led."
- Joy Hakim
Have things improved in the 50 years since Feynman wrote that in his wonderful autobiography ("Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman.")? Not according to a 2012 report from the Brookings Institution titled, "Choosing Blindly; The Challenge of Textbook Selection." It's worth reading.
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