Social studies textbooks used in elementary and secondary schools are mostly a disgrace that, in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism, fail to give students an honest account of American history, say academic historians and education advocates.
“Secondary and college students, and indeed most of the rest of us, have only a feeble grasp of politics and a vague awareness of history, especially the political history of the United States and the world,” says Paul Gagnon, emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts.
Most textbooks, produced by a handful of giant commercial publishers, are exposing generations of children to cultural and history amnesia that threatens the very basis of American free institutions and liberties, warn leading historians who are calling for better-defined, more rigorous state teaching standards.
Just 11 percent of eighth-graders show proficient knowledge of U.S. history on standardized tests — down from 17 percent in 2001, Mr. Gagnon noted in a recent study for the American Federation of Teachers.
“Less than half knew the Supreme Court could decide a law’s constitutionality,” he said in the Albert Shanker Institute study titled “Educating Democracy: State Standards to Ensure a Civic Core.”
“Only a third knew what the Progressive Era was and most were not sure whom we fought in World War II.”
Publishers acknowledge having buckled since the early 1980s to so-called multicultural “bias guidelines” demanded by interest groups and elected state boards of education that require censorship of textbook content to accommodate feminist, homosexual and racial demands.
The California State Board of Education was the first to adopt such guidelines in 1982, according to New York University education research professor Diane Ravitch in her latest book, “The Language Police.”
The California guidelines instruct textbook publishers and teachers: “Do not cast adverse reflection on any gender, race, ethnicity, religion or cultural group.” The board had informal “social-content standards” going back to the 1970s.
Publishers followed with their own editorial anti-bias guidelines, which banned words, phrases, images, and depictions of people deemed unacceptable — such as “man,” “mankind,” “manpower,” “men,” said to be sexist. Also banned are “able-bodied,” “aged,” “babe,” “backward,” “chick,” “fairy,” “geezer,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” “Redskin,” “sissy,” “suffragette” and “waitress.”
A handful of commercial publishers produce most elementary and secondary school textbooks used in the United States, which cost the nation’s taxpayers about $250 million per subject.
They are Glencoe, a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill; Holt, Rinehart & Winston, owned by Harcourt, Inc., U.S. division of the Dutch publishing conglomerate Reed Elsevier Group; McDougal Littell, owned by Houghton Mifflin; and Prentice Hall, a subsidiary of British-owned Pearson Education Inc., which also owns Scott Foresman, Addison Wesley, Silver Burdett, Ginn, and other school-textbook imprints.
All companies have developed their own internal checklists that dictate writing, graphics, photos and other textbook content.
A team of 16 academic reviewers in Texas, the second-largest state market for textbooks behind California, last year found 533 factual and interpretive errors in 28 social studies texts submitted for adoption by the state board of education.
The books were for sixth-grade world culture, seventh-grade Texas state history, eighth-grade and high school American history, U.S. government and economics, and high school world history.
“For 351 of the 533 errors identified, publishers agreed to either revise statements to correct factual inaccuracies or to add clarifying statements to rectify ambiguity,” said Chris Patterson, research director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, which commissioned the review.
For 35 percent of noted errors, “publishers denied that the information was incorrect and stated that the reviewers misunderstood the textbook,” Mrs. Patterson said. “However, in these cases, publishers did not modify the text to ensure students would not fall victim to the same misunderstanding suffered by scholars and teachers who reviewed the texts.”
She said many textbook errors cited by the foundation involved “clear bias” — opinions presented as fact, content “not sufficiently objective” or distortion through lack of substantive facts.
Sixth-grade texts on world cultures were strongly criticized by reviewer Robert Gorman, teaching professor of humanities and political science at Southwest Texas State University at San Marcos.
He said McDougal Littell’s “World Cultures and Geography” was marred by “weak treatment of American history,” while “World Explorer: People, Places and Culture” by Prentice Hall “handled American history better but dropped the ball on the European history.”
Harcourt’s “Harcourt Horizons” and Holt’s “Holt People, Places and Change: An Introduction to World Studies” “largely bungle the history throughout, not only by giving it minimal attention, but also compounding neglect with many errors of fact and interpretation,” Mr. Gorman said.
“Almost all of the books have deficient treatments of religion in general or of particular religious traditions, with the Christian tradition being almost uniformly the least well developed in all of the books.
“There is in all the texts a general tendency to see religion as just one trait among many cultural traits, rather than as a primary foundation of culture,” Mr. Gorman said. “In my own study of history and in my own personal experience, I have encountered many who are willing to give up their lives to keep or defend their religious faith, but rarely anyone who is willing to die for the right to eat pizza or dance the rumba.”
Economy of scale
Stephen D. Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division, told The Washington Times that textbook publishers “find themselves damned if they do or damned if they don’t follow the guidelines set forth” by state and local school boards and national organizations insisting on censorship of particular terminology or ideas in school materials.
“California is our largest state, and as such, it is also the single largest purchaser of textbooks. The economic reality for an educational publisher is, if they want to sell textbooks in California, they have to follow these guidelines,” he said.
Mrs. Ravitch, author of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s recent “Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks,” blames statewide textbook-adoption laws for committee-written books that students find boring and barely tolerable.
“There’s an incredible sameness about them. They’re following the same script,” she told reporters in a briefing on the study of a dozen American and world history texts issued Feb. 26.
In a 1,000-page textbook weighing almost eight pounds, “There’s so much included,” Mrs. Ravitch said. “They’re incoherent because of the pressure to include everything. They’re colorful but they have irrelevant graphics.”
At a time when the Harry Potter series grabbed children’s imagination and loyalty because the books “are exciting and well written … resonate with suspense, mystery, intrigue and showdowns between the forces of good and evil,” school history textbooks had “achieved the heights of banality,” thanks to political correctness, she wrote in an essay last fall for the Hoover Digest.
“They aim not to engage students’ imagination, but to bolster their self-esteem. … Harry Potter has triumphed because his author understands the power of story. If the story is good enough, children will take a flashlight to bed so they can keep reading after the lights are out. Unlike textbook publishers, who must screen everything before they print to avoid giving offense.”
Historian David McCullough, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman, also calls school history and social studies textbooks “deadly dull.”
“It is as if they were designed to kill anyone’s interest in history,” he said in an interview. “A child made to read these books would ask, ‘What did I do wrong today that I am being so punished?’”
Further evidence of “something that’s eating away at the national memory,” Mr. McCullough says, is a survey last year of seniors at 50 top colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“It’s astonishing. More than half didn’t know George Washington was the commanding general of the Continental Army during the American Revolution who accepted Brig. Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
“Thirty-six percent thought it was Ulysses S. Grant,” commander of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. “Six percent said it was Douglas MacArthur,” U.S. commander during the Korean War. “Thirty-two percent said Washington. It was a multiple-choice question. They were winging it.
“If you don’t know what Yorktown was all about, and that Washington was the commander, you don’t know … a lot about American history that you ought to know,” Mr. McCullough said.
Wilfred M. McClay, humanities professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said that when graduates of Harvard and other great universities “are not learning the basics of American history, it is safe to assume that almost no one is, and that there will be almost no one to pass such knowledge on to the next generation. …
“Historical memory is as much a necessity to the preservation of liberty and American security as is our own armed forces,” he said.
Mrs. Ravitch said states should get rid of statewide textbook-adoption laws and let teachers have freedom to select their own history books and original source materials to teach history.
“This power is too easily compromised by pressure groups and by bureaucratic demands,” she concluded in the Fordham study. “The states should set their academic standards, align their tests to those standards, and leave teachers free to select the books, anthologies, histories, biographies, software and other materials that will help students meet the standards.”
Mel Gabler of Longview, Texas, a textbook reviewer for 40 years, said he “absolutely disagrees completely” that local textbook selection is better than statewide selection, because publishers, teachers unions and other organized interests would block out parental interests.
“They’ll offer the best of two that create less controversy at the state level,” said Mr. Gabler, who with his wife, Norma, founded Education Research Analysts in 1961 to review textbooks from a Christian conservative perspective.
“Publishers are advantaged by local adoption because they have more personnel” to overwhelm possible criticism. At the state level, where organized parents and pro-family groups marshaled objections against textbook content, “that’s kicked out many a book,” Mr. Gabler said.
Better yet, Mr. McCullough said, teachers should abandon textbooks altogether and use other books and resources instead to teach history and geography.
Textbooks written to be “politically correct” do not tell the truth about struggle and conflict through the ages in order to avoid offending minorities, ethnic groups, women and other advocates, he said.
“History is a story, cause and effect. And if you’re going to teach just segments of history, women’s issues, these youngsters have almost no sense of cause and effect,” he said.
Mr. McCullough said, “I would do away with the textbooks. … Get rid of all the state commissions that write the textbooks” because they fail to instill in students a sense of gratitude for the country’s leaders over the centuries and what the American people endured and accomplished in order to pass on a legacy of freedom and prosperity.
“I think that to be ignorant or indifferent to history isn’t just to be uneducated or stupid. It’s to be rude, ungrateful. And ingratitude is an ugly failing in human beings.”
In the post-September 11 world, the most important task of elementary and secondary social studies teachers is to make sure that students know and appreciate the foundations of individual liberty and national security in a free society, said Gloria Sesso, a K-12 social studies administrator in New York’s Patchogue-Medford school district, and John Pyne, social studies supervisor in New Jersey’s West Milford school district.
“It is vital that today’s students are in touch with and able to affirm the values that define us as a nation — the values that the September 11 terrorists and their controllers scorned and attacked and the values from which tyrants shield their people,” the educators write in a Fordham Foundation report.
In this context, many educators and school administrators are coming to believe that huge survey textbooks that cover centuries of history and world culture may be outmoded and too expensive in an era of state learning standards designed to increase student academic achievement and knowledge.
With a plethora of books, films, original and supplementary materials available from libraries and on the Internet, textbooks now often are used as a supplement with other materials, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington.
“It’s almost like drinking from a fire hydrant,” Mr. Casserly said of the wealth of materials available to teachers and students in addition to social studies textbooks. “The challenge is getting schools aware of all of the resources, and making sure that all resources link together in a coherent way.”
E.D. Hirsch Jr., English professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and author of the widely acclaimed “Core Knowledge Series,” said in the study that students must be taught “moral progress in history” and firmly understand that “America’s religiously motivated enemies do not accept a founding premise of the First Amendment — that every culture or religion is deserving of respect.”
Mr. Hirsch said: “Our very tolerant way of regarding other people’s traditions and beliefs contrasts sharply with the intolerant way our adversaries view American traditions and beliefs. This contrast can create a problem for us and our children if our traditions of tolerance are allowed to lapse into facile relativism, under the bland illusion that everybody now operates under the benign post-Jefferson notion of tolerance, which is our inheritance from the European Enlightenment.
“It’s therefore important to teach our children the big, crucial restriction that the Enlightenment and our founders placed on the idea of religious and cultural toleration. Every culture or religion, they said, deserves to be left in peace and freedom so long as it leaves every other culture or religion in peace and freedom.”