An Education Update

The Truth About Textbooks

Why your student doesn't want to read that book:

Let's be honest, no one likes to read boring books, and that's at the heart of the issue with textbooks. Students are bored with their textbooks because, honestly, their textbooks are boring. Our textbooks have become so censored that all of the entertainment has been removed. Real life narratives from primary sources have been replaced by graphs and maps. The raw truth of history has been censored, leaving behind a dull and sterilized version of the past.
In their article The Mad Mad World of Textbook Adoption, linked below, the author notes that even adults say that today's textbooks "consist of politically blanched, dumbed-down text, laided with disconnected facts that are sometimes erroneous and not infrequently misleading" (4). Why are we doing this to our students?

Even the People picking the books know....

Boring History Textbooks

A brief history of how we got to this point

First, we need to understand how textbooks are chosen. In our state, Arkansas, they are chosen through an adoption process. This means that administrators, not teachers, select textbooks and other instructional materials. The nation is divided between similar adoption states and the differing selection states. In selection states, textbooks are chosen at the district, school or even individual classroom level. However, only about 1 in 4 teachers pick the books used in their classrooms.
Next, we have to accept the fact that textbook publishers/companies are businesses; and like all businesses, they like to make money. The more money the better. The two main adoption states are California and Texas-- they spend the most money on books. As a result, they have the most influence on the textbook market.

Now, in the past, Texas and California would just complain to textbook companies and refuse to buy books from them until they met their standards (Texas is very conservative, California is very liberal). The textbook companies were losing money from all of these edits. As a result, they created their own panels to make sure books met the standards of these two states (and their variety of influential individuals and organizations) before they presented them.

So what happens when conservative Texas and liberal California both have an impact on your text? Well, you censor it to a pulp. You remove anything remotely offensive, you make sure you have depicted an equal number of men and women and that those depicted represent our country with a proper racial ratio. You make sure that your language doesn't promote any one religion over another. You don't use the word "mankind" because that shows inequality toward women. The list just goes on... in fact, it can be over 160 pages long.

To read more, check out the link below. This article is where I found all of my fun facts!
Also, check out the map below from the "Mad Mad World of Textbook Adoption" article to find out how your state selects its textbooks.

Who writes the books?

I think that any parent would hope that their student's textbooks were written by experts in the field of study-- someone with a degree in the subject at least. The sad truth is that it just isn't the case. Textbooks are typically written by "chop shops with terms and figures to appease the states" (Mad Mad World 6). These chop shops get a list of required material from a state and start from there. The books are really just pieced together by a team of textbook writers. This is why they lack a voice, as well as authority. There isn't consistency in writing throughout the text. Think about hearing the story of America as told by 50 different people. It's not going to be very fluid.

Words You Can't Say

Below are the some of the words that you can't say in textbooks:
landlord, cowboy, brotherhood, yacht, cult, primitive, fireman, addict, Grandfather clause, manpower, manhours, penmanship, white collar, blue collar, teenager, senior citizen, elderly, third world, underprivileged, unmarried, uncivilized, widow, widower.

This is where being politically correct gets a bit out of hand. We are so scared to offend anyone (based on race, sex, gender, religion, color, etc.) that we are eliminating useful descriptive words. Textbook writers are left with only gender neutral, non-descriptive words to express key ideas to students.

For more about language used in textbooks (and to view the article that these words were pulled from), check out Diane Ravitch's "You Can't Say That" using the link below.

Books You read that your kid won't read at school

So far, I have briefly mentioned how this censorship affects history and science (disjointed text that is hard to follow, uninspiring material, boring our students, etc.) but I'd like to turn now to a subject that hits really close to home for me: literature. As a child, I loved to read. Books were a way to escape my own world and travel to fantastic and unfamiliar places. This is what I want for my students. I don't want them to have to read drab literature written by mediocre writers about really ordinary things. I want them to love reading because the books I give them to read are amazing. Unfortunately, the literary anthologies we are giving our students are becoming more and more censored (because they need to meet ratios on gender and race and religion and so on).
Books that the Texas Society of Daughters of the American Revolution had removed from textbooks... and why:
Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"-- it will make our students want to eat people.
Rome and Juliet-- "promotes teenage suicide."
The Diary of Anne Frank-- "unacceptable because it's sad."
(Mad, Mad 16)

This seems absurd to me. "A Modest Proposal" is a highly engaging (though somewhat gross... high school students love gross) fantastic example of satire... a great introduction to the genre. Romeo and Juliet is the only Shakespeare play that is centered around teenagers who are very close in age to the students who typically read this play. Aside from that... I read it in school... my whole high school class is still alive. Finally, The Diary of Anne Frank is an amazing primary source written by a girl that students relate to. And yes, it's sad... it is impossible to talk about the Holocaust without it being "sad."

The books below are all off the list of most challenged books from 2000-2009. See any of your favorites?

Follow the link below the pictures to see the rest of the list.

So what's the big deal... or.... why does this matter?

I'm going to split this up by subject so that we can have a better view of the implications.

Literature: We are eliminating access to some of our nation's best works. I'll use Huckleberry Finn as an example. This book is banned, mainly for the use of the word "nigger." I completely understand what is offensive here. However, we have to think beyond just the word and its contemporary use and meaning. Mark Twain was not a racist; in fact, he was quite the opposite. He isn't using this term to demean black Americans. It's just a term used at the time. Furthermore, the whole point of Huckleberry Finn is to demonstrate how, through establishing a friendship with someone who is different from oneself, Huckleberry Finn learns a lot about himself and learns to see Jim as more than "nigger Jim" and more than a slave, but as just... Jim. This book illustrates our past and how far we have come as a society. It teaches our students about friendship, about looking beyond color and about seeing individuals for who they really are. It is a beautiful, exciting tale of friendship and adventure.

While I am sure you could guess this, I want to add that I am 100% against banning books. That being said, I wholeheartedly support: selecting literature that is appropriate for student's age group; I also support parents having a say in what their student reads, especially at a classroom level. As a teacher, I would welcome parents to visit with me about any concerns they may have over the books we read in class. I also would encourage parents to talk to their students about what they read!

History: The common saying goes something like this-- we should learn from past mistakes so that we don't repeat them. How do our students learn from our past mistakes if we censor all the bad stuff out of the textbooks. How can today's women take pride in our rights if we forget to mention that, at one point, we didn't have all of them. How can we understand and appreciate as women, as people of color, as gay men, as any minority, the beauty of being able to grow up to be whatever we want... if we never realize that it wasn't always an option? Mad, Mad (the previously mentioned article) quotes Defattore as saying that our textbooks are trying "to describe what should be rather than what is" (17). This is a dangerous path. While we want to protect our students, we can't candy-coat the world for them in their textbooks. This doesn't prepare them for the real world... it prepares them for a nonexistent dream world.

Science: We don't really test our textbooks. However (again turning to Mad, Mad article), Diane Ravitch conducted a study where she had several science experts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science analyze textbooks from their field. They concluded that the books "don't help students relate ideas" and "don't develop topics" (35-36). In fact, none of the middle school science books they looked at were deemed satisfactory. These are the people we want writing the books. Our students need to be able to apply what they are learning from the text to real world situations. Otherwise, what's the point? Memorizing facts isn't helping... you have to be able to do something with those facts. Our science texts are not guiding students down that path.

Enough complaining lady... what do we do about it?

The facts have been stated. The sources have been given. The rant is over. It's time to brainstorm.

And I would suggest that brainstorming is the first thing we do. As educators, as involved parents, as local administrators, we need to get together and brainstorm. We need to talk to our state officials and convince them that we should become a selection state. We need to talk to each other and decide, at a community or school or classroom level: what is important to us? Aside from the state standards (Common Core Standards), what matters to us?

We need to test out our textbooks before we buy them for the entire state. Our children are the most important thing we have... they are our future. Shouldn't we take the time to test their books (read them, see how the supplemental materials work, see if they help raise test scores) before we have every classroom in the state using those books?

Finally, we need to trust our student's ability to discern between sexism and common language usage, between contemporary instances of racism and examples of racism from the past, and between right and wrong (in history and in literature). Our students are so mature... our society has made them this way. They can handle the truth, and they deserve it. We have to trust them to look at our mistakes and to use that knowledge to make something better for the future.

About Me

I am passionate about education and want to provide the best learning experience possible for each student that I meet. I absolutely love my job working with elementary students from kindergarten to fourth grade.