Denying Reality with Sterile Texts

By Gahr, Evan | Insight on the News, December 14, 1992 | Go to article overview

Denying Reality with Sterile Texts


Gahr, Evan, Insight on the News


A Perfect Day for Ice Cream" first appeared in Seventeen magazine. When publishers decided to put the short story in textbooks they did more than just basic editing.

Out went references that could offend. "Playing goalie kamikazestyle" was nixed, a possible ethnic slur. So were references to feminism and Gloria Steinem. The protagonist, a teenager who coaches her younger sister's soccer team, was not allowed to call her sister a pest because an editor worried that this was disrespectful to siblings.

Even the title was changed because of its perceived glorification of fatty food. So "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream" appeared in textbooks as "A Perfect Day" with references to chili burgers and pizza also deleted.

Pat Zettner, author of the story, says her editors made the changes to prevent complaints and to follow the requirement of one state, California, that textbooks used in the public schools emphasize healthful food. Zettner says the changes tore her story apart. "The story was not the real world, what we needed to present kids in textbooks."

Writing and compiling textbooks may sound like a straightforward task: Just resent the facts and edit according to space constraints. But textbooks are often custom-made to satisfy actual and anticipated complaints from various constituencies -- on both the left and right. Many states have specific guidelines to assure positive portrayals of women and minorities. So do publishers. The federal government has done its part to assure that men and women are portrayed identically If there's a difference between the sexes, don't try to find it in textbooks.

As guidelines proliferate, textbooks have become more a catalog of prevailing political trends than anything else. Pictures are carefully selected to include women, minorities and the disabled even when such people are not featured in the text. And these diverse groups are to be portrayed only one way: positively.

McGraw-Hill Inc.'s widely disseminated "Guidelines for Bias-Free Publishing" urge editors to ensure "adequate representation of disabled people in texts and illustrations." And not just the deaf, blind and physically handicapped. "Whenever possible, represent those with other types of impairment as well. The full range of conditions . . . includes behavioral problems, learning disabilities, mental retardation, multiple handicaps, neurological problems . . . and serious emotional problems."

Such detailed requirements are due to more than just sensitivity or a heartfelt desire to acknowledge the many faces of disability. Publishers are well aware that they will be held accountable for how groups are portrayed: Many school districts can purchase only state-approved textbooks. So with hefty contracts available, their motto is don't bite the hand that feeds you. Don Eklund, vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, has a simple explanation for why publishers are so receptive to pressure groups: "They like to stay in business." And it is a big business, with more than $1 billion in annual sales. Texas alone will spend an estimated $131 million on textbooks this year.

Eklund says publishers often hear presentations from the NAACP, B'nai B'rith, Italian-Americans and creationists. "You want to make sure you're considering all these issues; you'll have situations where people will count the number of women and ethnic groups. All the money that's used to buy the books comes from a public source."

There are 23 so-called adoption states that tell school districts what books they may buy. Books are usually approved after more than a year of deliberations, during which publishers hear comments from education committees and even private citizens. In the remaining 27 states, the districts can decide for themselves.

While groups from across the political spectrum are quite vocal in their efforts to influence textbook content and selection, there is disagreement over whether the left or right is more successful. …

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