The Textbook Case…Of Textbooks?

 Over the last few months, debates and discussions have been nuzzling their way through the Internet and the news media about the changes that are occurring in Texas around the state school boards’ revisions made to acceptable history textbooks for public education.  This article from the Washington Post provides a summation.  Of course, many people are critical of it; not the least of which is one of my favorites, Stephen Colbert.

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In watching Colbert, notice what things he does to undermine the entire issue; make it in some ways a non-issue or a poor reflection of ourselves.  But Colbert also looks to a historian, Eric Foner, who has written a good deal on American history and is an established and well-known author in the field.

This speaks to the large issue though of “what is history.”  So often, we say it’s a collection of the past events that explain the present but that tends to be overly simplifying.  History is an attempt at meaning making of past events and their relationships to one another as well as to the present.  It’s the meaning making that is problematic and most challenging in history.  It’s here that we tend to inject value and create a hierarchy of which events are more influential and relevant.  For instance, often, we have valued, studied, and talked about political leaders (presidents, kings, emperors) or military events (wars, coup d’etats, revolutions) in history.

Book Frames

But there are flaws with this model; first, the act of past-looking is so often framed by the present.  Just like memories in our heads, looking at the past is going to be understood through the present lens.  A great example of this is Doris Kearn Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” published in 2005.  Here is a book that was written (and well received) in 2005.  The premise of the book focuses on the politically varied Cabinet that Abraham Lincoln chose upon become President.  But the book and its reception came at a time when the current president (President GW Bush) had been vexing the public in part for his insular and padded surrounding of others who were in the exact ideologically mindset as him; that is, no outside voices for him to consider.  Thus, Goodwin’s history had a very specific frame through which people could understand and appreciate the kind of history she was telling.
The second major flaw is that choosing and debating and presenting as “truth” certain facts being more influential than others in any event or in history as a whole, presumes that we:

1.    Vastly understand who we are as human beings and how we got to the present; both of which have been drastically undermined.  Given that the past, some modern “human beings” would not be consider “human” means that they were disregard, devalued, and not given the tools or denied the tools to record their histories (or if done so, more often destroyed than allowed to continue).  That is, our categories have never been solidly clear.  Also, where we don’t fully understand the human mind, and that our major means of communicating (language) is significantly faulty or at least limited in terms of what it can provide us for “truth” of our minds, means we’re continually reconfigure what we “think” of why people did what.

2.    The other major presumption is that we know the full picture; we know the end game; we know how the full “story” that history is supposed to purport.  Our presumptions of beginnings, middles and ends have been greatly undermined.  A person claiming to be both Christian and scientist in the 1700s would claim that the world (and human life) was some 6000 years old; that same person today, could claim 6000 or 5 billion and as for the beginning of human life; the answer varies according to your definition and belief systems.  

So back to Texas and the school books.  Regardless, the creation of a textbook is inevitably going to be faulty to some end or other; the concern here is how much control and manipulation nonhistorians  can have and can use to present certain types of history for certain populations.  Teaching children is a loaded problem; this problem has appeared in many different subjects:  literature, sex education/health, and of course, history (that is, this isn’t the first time that the teaching of history has been under scrutiny (check out  Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present by Joseph Moreau or Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong  by James W. Loewen  for further discussion).

But what this story opens us up to is the impact this will have on not just students (redirected away from one historical figure/moment to another) but also how this will impact the textbook industry and writers of history in general.  While it’s a far cry to say that this censorship board (and given the range of expectations; they are acting as such) is going to fully rewrite or threaten history, it’s attempts to do so on a local level are challenging and problematic.

In the larger picture, I think it’s important to keep in mind that these kind of decisions are being made all the time and on all ends of the political and cultural spectrum.  What the school board ultimately represents is but one of the many filters through which information is coded and formatted.  For many of us, we’re unaware of the filter systems for so much that we take for granted as “truth” or “fact.”  

What are some other thoughts we have about this?

What are some of the others filters of information?  What are the challenges or concerns that each of these pose?  Are there benefits to such filters?  If so, what are they?

What other incidents of censorship do we know of or have witnessed?  Within politics?  History?  Literature?

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  1. Personally I disagree with censoring the information in our school textbooks. This isn't China where we have to filter out all of the bad stuff. I heard that during the world cup this summer that North Korea was censoring highlights of the games to make it look as though they were not the weaker nation. There was also a girl in my high school who had a friend who lived in China and when she asked her a question about Chinese history and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, she had absolutely no clue what it was because the Chinese government censored it out of the textbooks. Obviously the "winners" are going to write history since the losers are not there to tell their side of the story, but personally I do not think it would hurt if we got all of the information instead of just bits and pieces. Wouldn't it make us better off overall? The info that is being censored is most likely stuff that makes out country look weaker or has info about poor judgments and decisions. I think that if all the information was shared than kids coming through the school systems could eventually learn from mistakes of our history and invent or have ideas to prevent those poor decisions in the future.


  2. All three of these topics, politics, history, and literature, seem to censor, at the very least, being risqué to the point in which the targeted audience is uninterested. Political leaders, for the most part, try and avoid getting others wrapped up in any sort of personal life that they may lead. Bill Clinton once argued against a case involving himself getting involved with a woman by stating that “[he] did not have sexual relations with [a certain] woman”. He tries his best to keep the public image of himself positive, by using word choice to censor what he is trying to say. “Sexual relations” could have been any number of things that are too graphic to actually go into, so he decided to keep it clean.
    When it comes to history, elementary and middle school teachers never like to include any sort of promiscuity in any part of the lesson that they teach. It is one thing to say that a child was had, etc. but these teachers do not want to affect any of the children’s upbringing by bringing up something that they are uncomfortable talking about, so things like that are purposely left out.
    In literature, censorship is really based on the style of the writing. If someone were to, for example, try and write a story by mimicking the writing of William Shakespeare, they would not go on dropping swears left and right. Curse words are devices used in modern times to emphasize something, but Shakespeare would never use a line such as, “To be, or not to be. Well, shit if I know.”

  3. Ah, censorship… the most annoying form of stupidity. As an artist and a writer, I take the issue of censorship almost at a personal level. I respect that a certain amount of regulation is necessary in a society that enables free speech like ours – after all, no self-respecting adult should allow a young child to be exposed to things such as gratuitous sexual or violent subject matter. But regulation and censorship of subject matter are two vastly different things. A child should not be exposed to gratuitous violence, but neither should the fact that there is violence in the world be hidden from them. Ignorance is a thoroughly dangerous thing in many cases.
    But I digress. On the matter of censorship of academic material (and make no mistake, choosing what to include and omit from a textbook of any subject IS censorship), it is, in my opinion, among the worst ideas, if not the absolute worst idea, in the world. Personal, political, or religious values and opinions have no place in the matter of deciding what a person of any age should be allowed to learn, or teach for that matter. Period. The attaining of both knowledge and wisdom is gained by being exposed to all subjects and ideas, even the bad or controversial ones. This exposure allows people to learn from the efforts, mistakes and successes of other and is one of the fundamental building blocks of human progression.


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