THOUGHTS ON TEACHING: Textbooks, School Reform, and the Silver Lining

Article excerpt

HELL-IN-a-hand-basket doomsayers. Ya gotta love 'em. These modern Minutemen stand stoically ready to snatch the lantern, scurry to the Old North Church, scramble up the rickety stairs, and alert a sleeping countryside, always just in time to avert a cataclysm. But their warnings are more form than substance, and the dangers they foresee are more like tempests in a teapot than Armageddon. As a result, I find their premonitions more useful as sources of amusement and irritation than as prophecies. That makes it easy to resist their pessimism, drama, and quick-fix blarney.

So how could it be that today I find myself frighteningly close to abandoning my writing, searching through my junk drawer for matches, lighting the lantern, and elbowing for space in the crowded church steeple? The very thought riddles my psyche with anxiety and torments my conscious mind. I want to tell you that my angst is the aftermath of some calamitous event -- that I was hit by lightning or abducted by aliens. But no. The opposite is true. I don't recall anything out of the ordinary.

It all started when I decided to learn more about how textbooks present Native Americans and Native American history. So, I read some textbooks. I wasn't surprised. Textbooks treat Native peoples in pretty much the same way society treats them -- as an afterthought brought into our collective consciousness only as they serve our interests and tell our story.

But that's not the news here. In fact, finding that textbooks ignore Native Americans would hardly have been worth developing the charts and graphs or accumulating the piles of data that currently clutter my office floor. Nor is it news that I found the texts unbalanced. History is, after all, merely a tale told by the winners. They get to decide which stories are told and from what perspective. They get to choose the villains and heroes; they get to assign motives, values, and morality. And it is not breaking news that I found an abundance of factual inaccuracies, flat-out fabrications, transmissions of myth as reality, glaring omissions, and best-case interpretations of historically shameful events. A quick re-read of James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me would have revealed as much.

Looking back, though, it seems my arteries started to clog and the blood began to drain from my brain about the time I found a short article by Frank Wang titled "How Textbooks and the Considerable Economic Resources of Textbook Publishers Can Be Used to Improve Student Achievement." A Google search for "textbook effectiveness research" brought it to my computer screen, and I was taken with an illustrative little story it tells.

In North Carolina, textbooks are approved for funding by a relatively small group of people called the textbook adoption committee. According to Wang, this is an "idiotic" system. As evidence, he offers the aforementioned story, which has to do with how one man used the political system to change history -- at least as told by one textbook.

Wang reports that between 1966 and the late Eighties, students using an unnamed textbook read "more . . . about . . . a relatively obscure [battle at] Moore's Creek than either the Boston Tea Party or the First Continental Congress." He quips, "In this case, Moore is less."

As Wang tells it, it happened this way. Just one committee member -- a descendant of a carpetbagger, no doubt -- was unwilling to approve the textbook for state use until the battle, which was fought on a bridge over a little creek that runs near his home, was added to the text. The member held out; the publisher caved in. Once the text's content was "revised . . . [to include] more . . . about Moore's Creek," the member was satisfied, the textbook was approved, and the textbooks were distributed to classrooms across America.

But why would a textbook company bend to one man's will? Aren't those companies themselves the rightful authors of history? …