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Monday, July 29, 2002
THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK
Pursuit of mediocrity in textbook selection
By HIROAKI SATO
NEW YORK -- Is the presence of 50,000 prostitutes "an important historical fact"? Grace Shore, chairwoman of the Texas State Board of Education, didn't think so, nor did the majority on her 15-member board.
The upshot: Pearson Prentice-Hall, the publisher of "Out of Many: A History of the American People," the college textbook that cites the figure in its "Cowgirls and Prostitutes" section, withdrew the book from consideration by the Texas board. In its place, the British-owned company submitted another textbook that "better fits the state's curriculum."
The June 29 front-page story in the New York Times, "Textbook Publishers Learn: Avoid Messing With Texas," underscores the intriguing state of textbook preparation and marketing in the United States. A report by the Center for Education Reform (May 2001) lists three salient facts about the U.S. textbook market:
* More than 20 states select textbooks for all classrooms within the state -- as opposed to states like New York that leave textbook selection to individual schools or school districts.
* California, Texas and Florida, which are among those that make textbook selection at the state level, account for 30 percent of the nation's textbook market.
* McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt and Pearson Prentice-Hall serve 70 percent of the market, which the Center for Education Reform, a Washington advocacy group, says is worth $3.3 billion annually. The New York Times put its at $4.5 billion.
Add to these the tendency of lesser states to follow the dominant players, and you have a situation in which three states and four publishing houses play a disproportionate role in determining what students get to learn.
You might say, well, that's better than what happens in countries like Japan, where a single government agency has the power of "certifying" the textbooks. But I wonder. Aside from the number of publishers involved, there is the textbook adoption process in the United States to consider. As it happens, the Center for Education Reform includes in its report, "The Textbook Conundrum," a description of how California determines the contents of the textbooks it adopts for elementary schools.
The Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, which is advisory to the State Board of Education, appoints a committee to create "curriculum frameworks and textbook criteria." The frameworks are approved or modified by the commission and then further approved or modified by the board. Publishers prepare textbooks to meet those frameworks and criteria.
Evaluation panels then vet the prepared texts for further changes and such. Content review panels also vet them. Then, legal-compliance committees, made up of volunteers, inspect their "social content."
This means, among other things, checking whether the ethnic groups in the Golden State are fairly represented in illustrations and texts. If Hispanics account for more than 30 percent of the state's population, as they do, more than three out of 10 figures in pictures and print must appear to be of Latin origin.
This procedure is then subjected to "citizen review and participation," which may require further revisions and modifications. Such a process may be described as "democracy at work," as Peggy Venable, a Texan participant in her state's textbook vetting, suggested in the Times article. But it creates some basic problems.
Foremost among them, the collective process tends to produce the least common denominators or, as the education historian Diane Ravitch put it, texts geared to "minimal competencies." Ravitch served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and is now a research professor at New York University.
A setup that requires multiple interventions breeds irresponsibility. One can readily imagine some involved in the process adopting a "who cares?" attitude at one point or another. Indeed, the seemingly watertight process is known to produce textbooks studded with factual errors, even in science and math books.
The situation becomes even more precarious in history and other social studies, where "facts" are largely matters of interpretation and choice. This was brought home to me after the movie "Glory" came out in 1989. The stirring film, which turned Denzel Washington into a star, dealt with a subject that critic Pauline Kael said "had never been tapped for the movies": the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry, the first black fighting unit in the Civil War.
Although by then it had become more than a piece of common knowledge that blacks were over-represented in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, I didn't know they had fought in the Civil War. So I checked my bookshelves.
Samuel Eliot Morison, in his three-volume "Oxford History of the American People," which covers U.S. history up to President John F. Kennedy's assassination, gives just one paragraph to the 54th Regiment's assault on Fort Wagner. It was as though Morison didn't want the regiment's white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, left unmentioned.
I have five books by the old-style historian of the Civil War, Bruce Catton. He mentions Shaw in three -- "Terrible Swift Sword," "This Hallowed Ground" and "Never Call Retreat" -- and the 54th in two. The longest description, in "Never Call Retreat," takes up about one page. Catton seems to have wanted to use the page to say that "a great many dead men of both races were given shallow graves in the sand just outside the fort, to illustrate that distressing idea of equality."
In his 900-page "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era," an installment in the 10-volume set "The Oxford History of the United States," James M. McPherson, too, doesn't give much space to the assault on Fort Wagner, but his reading of the event is entirely different. Citing The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Tribune and, above all, President Abraham Lincoln, he suggests that the assault, though a dismal military failure, was politically pivotal. And little wonder. A historian obviously affected by the civil rights movement, McPherson, at least up to the publication of the book in 1988, had focused on blacks' struggle for freedom.
So, in history and social studies, you select "facts" in ways that would allow you to make a point. From today's perspectives, Morison and Catton are dated and possibly wrong. But they had their own narrative threads to pursue. Multiple committees can't do that.
Ah, prostitutes. By way of looking up the 54th Regiment in Catton, I noticed he indexed "prostitutes" in "This Hallowed Ground." Here's what he says of them: "In the big Union base at Nashville there were so many prostitutes that an Ohio soldier declared the army's very existence was threatened; the authorities finally took a provost guard, rounded up fifteen hundred of the women."
When it comes to the somewhat later age of cowgirls, Nyle Miller and Joseph Snell, in "Great Gunfighters of the Kansas Cowtowns, 1867-1886" (1963), tell us that "in Caldwell prostitutes contributed more than one half of the city's total income." Their book is largely based on contemporary news dispatches, town records and such. Also, the authors note from records, that four or five female relatives of Wyatt Earp, the famous U.S. marshal of Dodge City, may have been prostitutes.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.