Making Everyone Happy

The state textbook review process blends homogenized boredom

Peggy Venable, of the right-wing Citizens for a Sound Economy, has been a prominent player in the State Board of Education's textbook hearings.
Peggy Venable, of the right-wing Citizens for a Sound Economy, has been a prominent player in the State Board of Education's textbook hearings. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

If we are what we teach, who shall decide what is taught? Texas' recent hearings on the statewide adoption of social studies textbooks, which began July 17 and ended Sept. 11, featured ordinary citizens and elected officials grappling with that question -- and, in a larger sense, defining our legacy as a state and a nation.

In Texas, one thing is certain: The answer won't be left to the "experts." The textbook hearings held by the State Board of Education feature Texas-style populism, and anybody with enough time and energy (and more recently, money) can weigh in on the merits and flaws of the latest books submitted for use in Texas school districts. The "social studies" hearings, which feature history texts front and center, are particularly provocative; the discussions themselves serve as potent reminders of why we need a candid look at our society and its past.

For example, at the Aug. 23 hearing, Lucy Camarillo, a Mexican-American parent from North Texas, took the podium to criticize several history books that neglected to mention the overt discrimination Mexican-Americans faced until the 1960s. "I just want my children to know the truth about what their grandparents faced," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "We weren't allowed in restaurants, we couldn't get into the good schools -- we suffered a lot."

As Camarillo held back tears, board member Judy Strickland of Plainview responded in a dismissive voice. "Well, the ancestors of everyone in this room suffered to come to this land," she said. "But, fortunately, we are making it all better for all of us."

Rather than have schoolchildren study the approved texts, it might be better to require them to watch the hearings. In the process they would learn a lot more about history -- the highly subjective art of forging a coherent narrative out of the debris of our past -- than they ever will from the current group of textbooks proposed for adoption. The textbook hearings -- long, tedious, and repetitious as they are -- provide an intimate look at how Texans feel about history. That is a useful lesson, but the SBOE's mission -- spelled out in state law as the goal of the review process -- is to make Texans as different as Judy Strickland and Lucy Camarillo just feel good about the past.

That may be a comforting and reassuring goal -- but textbooks that actually succeed in placating all sides will be more boring and horrible than ever. The books look great, with pages bursting with photos and illustrations, but the central text meanders between the images like a child lost at the circus. Storytelling techniques, such as narrative and interpretation, are ignored. Instead, we have a chronicle of progress, neatly compartmentalized into people, places, and events. It is no wonder that, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, only one in 10 high school seniors is considered "proficient" in history. The kids are all right; we just haven't been giving them a reason to care.

Unfortunately, Texas' colorful, pluralistic process and the bland textbooks are intimately connected. Many of the textbook offerings reviewed by the SBOE this year are first editions; that is, publishers are producing new textbooks specifically for the Lone Star State. Texas is the second largest buyer in the country (after California); local school districts will use state money to purchase an estimated $700 million worth of textbooks in the next two years. But though the books are purchased locally, each and every title must pass the SBOE's adoption process. "The books have gotten worse as the stakes have gotten bigger," said Byron Hollinshead, the president of American Historical Publications. "If you want to sell textbooks, you aim them at the two biggest adoption states, Texas and California, and you try your best to make everyone happy."

Hispanic citizens drove from Brownsville to speak at the hearings. The group was wearing T-shirts that read His-story, Her-story, Our-story and spoke in favor of greater repesentation of the accomplishments and history of Hispanic Americans in social studies textbooks.
Hispanic citizens drove from Brownsville to speak at the hearings. The group was wearing T-shirts that read "His-story, Her-story, Our-story" and spoke in favor of greater repesentation of the accomplishments and history of Hispanic Americans in social studies textbooks. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

In Texas, conservative nonprofits and advocacy groups have ruled the textbook adoption process for years. They work hard to elect conservatives to the SBOE, an unpaid and time-consuming position; they spend large amounts of time and money reviewing textbooks; and they mobilize their members to testify at the hearings. In 1995, the Legislature tried to reverse the stark and worsening politicization of the review process by restricting the board's powers: it could henceforth reject books only if they didn't cover the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) requirements or contained "factual errors."

However, the definition of a "factual" error has been stretched increasingly thin (see "Why Johnny Won't Read," p.28). Last year, during the environmental science hearings, the board rejected Jones and Bartlett's Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, which conservatives labeled anti-Christian and anti-American because, among other things, it implied there is a scientific consensus supporting the theory of global warming. On the other hand, the board approved a book that was funded in part by a consortium of mining companies -- and that was careful to note potential benefits of global warming.


From TEKS to TAKS

This time around, publishers are communicating directly with conservative groups beforehand to make their books more palatable. "It was a wake-up call for publishers that we asked for a book to be rejected and it was," said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. "I think that the more eyes that see a textbook before it is published, the better." Board members aren't necessarily so enthusiastic; they've objected before when single members "negotiated" with publishers over textual details outside of public meetings, and this year some complained that publishers made changes in response to private critiques prior to the board's public review.

However, if the goal is to make sure that every textbook -- like other commercial products, e.g., Muzak -- is palatable to the most mainstream of tastes, then the SBOE textbook adoption process has been one of the most successful consumer advocacy campaigns in memory. Does the process provide Texas schools with accurate, interesting textbooks from which teachers will be happy to teach and students will be eager to learn? That's a very different question, with rather disheartening answers.

This year an Advanced Placement (AP) textbook on American history, Out of Many, was withdrawn by Prentice-Hall (the largest U.S. publisher of high-school and college textbooks) after SBOE Chair Grace Shore objected to a paragraph estimating that there were over 50,000 prostitutes in the old West. "The majority of women in cattle towns were prostitutes," said Yale history professor John Mack Faragher, lead author of Out of Many. "You have two choices: leave women out of the story, or talk about prostitution. History isn't always pretty, but that's no excuse to whitewash it."

Out of Many is a college-level textbook that was issued in its first AP edition just in time for the Texas adoption process. In anticipation of potential controversy, the publisher solicited a number of proposed editorial changes from an AP teacher in Texas -- who suggested that all mention of homosexuality and birth control be removed. Faragher refused. "To not deal with the gay movement and birth control would not only violate the principles of our book," he said, "it would mean closing our eyes to significant phenomena that shaped the 20th century." Faragher admits he did modify some of the more "colorful" language in the book but, he insists, changed nothing substantive.

The editorial process that creates elementary-level textbooks is even more susceptible to the machinery of the marketplace -- and thus to political pressure. These books -- despite the lists of distinguished academics that inevitably appear on the title page -- are in fact drafted by countless anonymous freelancers, whose work is then edited into standard textbook style and compiled by a committee. "Kids show good taste," said Hollinshead. "They find history incredibly boring. The publishers try to get all the state standards included in the book, and, in a very cynical way, try to make them appeal to all the advocacy groups. These books are compiled, and are just terrible reading."

In Texas, the state insists that all of the TEKS material is covered in the textbooks, so that they make easy-to-use study guides for the high-stakes Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, test (which is replacing the TAAS this year). "The TEKS are extremely influential," said Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, "not only for Texas, but for the nation. Some TEKS are well-intentioned, but backfire because they are heavy-handed. For example, one TEKS [requirement] tells publishers to always show how the past affects the present. Well, that sounds good, but in practice it forces some facts to get dumbed down and distorted."

A marked decline in reading levels have affected the books as well. "It's categorically true that the latest batch of textbooks is pitched at a lower level then they were 20 years ago," said Sewall. "There is much less narrative. In its place we have graphics and factoids, all kinds of bells and whistles to make the books 'more exciting.' They may be snappier, but are they more effective?"

Making Everyone Happy

Before the 1970s, American history textbooks had a strong, straightforward narrative, focusing on the Founding Fathers and the presidents. This clear narrative, say some conservatives, has been lost in the rush to embrace multiculturalism. This year for the first time, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a San Antonio-based conservative think tank, underwrote a major textbook review effort, and its reviewers didn't much like what they found. "I think all perspectives should be included, but one sixth-grade book had only one sentence on George Washington," said Christopher Hammons, professor of political science at Houston Baptist University and coordinator of the TPPF textbook review, "and several paragraphs dedicated to Benito Juarez. It's a shame poor old George has been bumped out of the textbooks."

With or without Benito Juarez, the textbooks don't provide a coherent narrative of the Latino experience either. At the hearings, many Latino college students complained that they graduated from high school without learning much of anything about their own civil rights movement. "We have made huge strides," said Vincent Ramos, executive director of the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "But to ignore the whole of our history, including the difficult struggles, is to ignore the improvements that still need to be made. And we can't afford to do that."

As the publishers struggle to compile textbooks that are very "diverse" -- yet simultaneously uncontroversial -- the results are flamboyantly multicultural books that, for fear of contradiction, shy away from any kind of honest interpretation. The books dutifully include the requisite number of factoids about ethnic heroes, with illustrations looking every bit as noble as those for the Founding Fathers. Thanks to this bland, formulaic approach, all students -- white, black, brown, or whatever -- will be equally bored out of their gourds. "A list of facts is a chronicle," said Faragher. "It's not history. History doesn't just recount what happened -- it tries to make sense of it all."

The Author's Voice Yet not all textbooks are created equal -- a few are actually written by actual authors. A series of elementary textbooks up for adoption this year, A History of US from Oxford University Press, manages to include much about the founding of the country, much about women and minorities, and (hold on to your desks) recounts it all in a distinctive voice that trusts that children are able to grapple with moral complexity. In today's market, that is nothing short of revolutionary. "My great innovation is I am an author writing a book," jokes Joy Hakim, sole author of A History of US.

Hakim is a former teacher and newspaper reporter who began writing textbooks out of pure outrage. "I was paying for private school, and my daughter wasn't learning any U.S. history," she said. "The book was bland as oatmeal; she just wouldn't read it. Even the teacher was bored." And the more she came to understand about how textbook production and marketing works, the more outraged she became. "Publishers rely on giveaways to sell books," she said. "They give every teacher who uses the book a filing system or some other gadget. That's because they can't sell a book based on its content -- they're all the same."

Hakim wrote the first 20 chapters of A History of US and found a local classroom (she lives in Virginia) willing to give the book a test run. The response was enthusiastic, so she began to hire local schoolchildren to "edit" the books for her, asking them to mark passages with "B" for Boring, "NC" for Not Clear, and so on. "I got some passages marked with a 'B,'" she admits. "But I began to learn a lot about what kids respond to. There were some words that I thought would be too difficult, but they understood them right away, and vice versa."

Emboldened by her experimental success, Hakim began to submit her book to all the major textbook publishers. All turned her down. "I got a lot of lovely letters back," she said. "But they all told me that the books just didn't fit in with how they did things." Finally, Hakim's manuscripts ended up in the hands of Hollinshead, formerly the head of Oxford University Press, who became the books' editor and advocate. At the time, Oxford was opening a new children's division, and agreed to print 8,000 copies for bookstore distribution. The series has now gone on to sell over 4 million copies and is used in classrooms across the country; it is even being made into a PBS series. The New York Review of Books even deemed it worthy of a review by historian Alexander Stille, who wrote, "Hakim's books threaten the entire textbook industry."

Hakim says that in 1996, during the last Texas social studies adoption cycle, her book was criticized by conservative reviewers for saying that communism was designed as an ideal system for distributing wealth. "But," she exclaims, "the next sentence began with 'but,' and I laid out the reasons why [communism] failed. They took that completely out of context; it was just dishonest." Oxford eventually withdrew the book rather than make the revisions requested by the board.

But Hakim says she has had her share of problems with liberal advocates as well. "In Oakland, I was told by a minority advocate that since I didn't have ancestors that suffered, I wasn't qualified to write about their history," said Hakim, who is Jewish. "Both sides can be very difficult." A California-based advocacy group, the Textbook League, has complained about A History of US to that state's board of education, claiming the series title on Colonial America "has no place in any public school because it is spiked with religious preaching" and that Hakim uses the book "as a platform for promoting her personal religious beliefs, for falsely depicting religious myths as matters of historical fact, and for subjecting students to religious indoctrination." The books were adopted in California.

Hakim says she takes great pains to present both sides of an issue, no matter how contentious. "For example, I show how slave owners weren't all bad people," she said. "Many of them were also, in their own way, victims of an evil institution." So far, there hasn't been any indication that A History of US will be rejected this time around. "George and Laura Bush have written the introduction to the new volume," she said. "I think that makes me kosher."

Hakim says that her books provide one lesson: Kids should not be underestimated. "Kids will read if you give them something worth reading," she said. "I challenge you to try and read a typical textbook. There isn't a thought that carries through from one paragraph to the next. It is a travesty. I hate to be a proponent of book-burning, but we should light the fire."

  • More of the Story

  • Why Johnny Won't Read

    The State Board of Education is supposed to stick to the facts, but their opinions weigh pretty heavily in textbook selection.

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