- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

It seems like a distant past now, but when Sen. Barack Obama delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech in mid-March, commentators were quick to call it “historic.” Now, though, as we are — or he is — knee deep in “bitterness” and loss in Pennsylvania, chances may be slimmer that his speech will make it into mainstream history textbooks.

“At this point, it’s too early to tell if it’s soft soap or historic,” says Gil Sewell, president of the American Textbook Council, a New York-based nonprofit group that reviews history and social studies textbooks.

“I don’t think the speech is the ‘Profile in Courage’ that the New York Times called it. … But it’s not out of the question that it will get into high school textbooks,” Mr. Sewell says.

It just depends on what happens next. If Mr. Obama wins the presidency, yes, there is a chance, Mr. Sewell says. (First Mr. Obama has to win the elusive Democratic nomination, and that battle seems far from over.)

If he doesn’t, he probably will be reduced to a paragraph as the first serious black contender.

Which begs the question: What makes it into high school American history textbooks, and when does it make it?

“Textbook publishers are very responsive to their times,” says Steve Selden, a professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland. “The less [textbooks] offend anyone, the more likely they are to sell. And this is big business.”

For example, Mr. Selden says, a Henry Holt and Co. textbook from 1921 had references to evolution and Charles Darwin. In 1926, a year after the Scopes trial (in which a Tennessee substitute biology teacher, John Scopes, was tried in court for unlawfully teaching evolution) the Holt textbooks no longer had any reference to Darwin.

“Textbooks are pressured to be a ‘museum of virtue,’ ” Mr. Selden says.

These museums of virtue don’t come out very often. Every five years or so, publishing companies make major changes. More often, though, about every other year, they make minor changes, such as adding a few paragraphs about an election or a war.

The American history textbook “The Americans,” McDougal Littell, copyrighted in 2006, closed for text changes in 2004, but it still manages to include a few lines about then-current events, such as that weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq and President Bush was re-elected, Mr. Sewell says.

This means a few lines on the 2008 election may appear in textbooks copyrighted in 2010 but that detailed information about the presidential campaign, including speeches, may be at least five years off.

Part of the reason for the lag time is money. Textbooks are expensive to produce and cost about $60 to $70 apiece for schools to buy. The other part of the story has to do with historic perspective.

It’s difficult to tell if something is historic until some time has passed, unless it’s as horrific and significant as Sept. 11, Mr. Selden says.

“Historians and editors will try to figure out a narrative line later,” Mr. Selden says. “If [Mr. Obama] wins the presidency, they will look at where and when he pulled ahead. … The speech may become part of that narrative.”

A good teacher, though, likely won’t wait for updated textbooks.

Joseph Presley, a social studies, government and history teacher at Banneker High School in Northwest, says he encourages his students to read a newspaper every day.

“Current events help illustrate and bring to life what we discuss in class,” Mr. Presley says. “If they only read it in a textbook, it seems as if it’s detached from reality.”

His seniors are relating the Truman Doctrine and its implications for Greece and Turkey with Bush policies and the Iraq War.

“We talk about similarities and differences between now and then,” Mr. Presley says.

Maria Trementozzi, acting supervisor of the social studies department for the Montgomery County school system, says teachers have so much information at their fingertips — through the Internet — that it’s easy to give students the latest on current events.

“Teachers can easily get copies of speeches — like the Obama speech — and they can get information on court cases from places like streetlaw.com,” Ms. Trementozzi says. “There are so many resources out there.”

The abundance of Internet resources, though, does not spell the death of the textbook, Mr. Selden says. The offensiveness filters that the publishing company applies are still an appeal for school systems that don’t want to alienate anyone — right, left or center.

“My best guess is that the above issues of virtue museums and anti-intellectualism will remain,” he says, adding that in the end, different school systems may apply different social and cultural filters.

“Yeats may turn out to have been correct all along, and ‘the center cannot hold,’ ” he says.

That would sort of be the antithesis of a more perfect union, wouldn’t it?

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