Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Just the Facts, please....

Two interesting items, on the same theme, came to my attention in the past few weeks. The first is a book, entitled, “The Language Police” by Diane Ravitch. This book details the methods used by publishing companies as they prepare textbooks. It seems that there are numerous groups, both liberal and conservative who find many things offensive. That is not surprising. What is surprising to me is that textbooks are commonly altered to ensure that no one is offended. Words, topics and images are changed, shortened or deleted to avoid offense to anyone. If you’re concerned about what your child is reading, this may sound like a good thing, but is it? Here are a few examples:

“Women cannot be depicted as caregivers or doing household chores. Men cannot be lawyers or doctors or plumbers. They must be nurturing helpmates. Old people cannot be feeble or dependent; they must jog or repair the roof. A story set in the mountains discriminates against students from flatlands. Cake cannot appear in a story because it is not nutritious.”

In many cases, descriptions of historical events are changed to prevent offending anyone. In a story about the ancient Egyptians, a description about the various classes of people (rich, poor, etc.) was eliminated so that it would not appear elitist. In another instance, a true story about a blind man hiking up Mount McKinley was dropped from a textbook. The committee determined that, although the story was very inspirational, the fact that it was about hiking in the mountains would show “regional bias” against any students who do not live in the mountains. They, also, felt that it would make it appear as though persons who are blind are “worse off” that those who are not blind. A story about George Washington Carver and his work with peanuts was changed because it mentioned that peanuts were nutritious and the panel felt that children who were allergic to peanuts would become confused, since they were not allowed to eat peanuts. Many of the stories used to illustrate the censorship that takes place in textbooks are so strange that they almost seem unbelievable.

I recently taught an Ohio History class and as I prepared my lesson plans, I was surprised how often books differed on “historical facts.” At the time, I thought that the writers of some of the books, must not have researched thoroughly or just made inaccurate notes before they prepared their final draft. Now I wonder, if the facts in some of the books were changed to avoid offending anyone.

Just as I finished “The Language Police”, I received a copy of George Lucas’ educator’s magazine, Edutopia. It contained an article entitled, “The Muddle Machine: Confessions of a Textbook Editor.” By Tamim Ansary. This not only confirmed much of what I had read in “The Language Police,” but made even more startling claims. Ansary states that when a new textbook is being written, the first order of business is to take all of the other textbooks on the same topics that the publishing company can find and combine them into one text. Editors then delete any repetitious information; and put what’s left into a readable format. After the book is complete, the publishing company contacts various “authorities” in whatever subject area the textbook covers and asks for permission to use that authority’s name as the author. That seems a little backward, don’t you think?

If you use traditional textbooks for any part of your learning experience, I would highly recommend that you read these two interesting writings.

Edutopia Magazine, Issue 2, November 2004
The Muddle Machine - Confessions of a Textbook Editor
by Tamim Ansary

The Language Police - How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
By Diane Ravitch
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003


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