Posted on April 15, 2005
I want to commend Chairman Gregg for convening this critical hearing on the state of textbooks used to teach our children. School textbooks today are in disarray — they have become boring, overly-sanitized, and at times blatantly inaccurate. Censorship based on political sensitivity is now rampant in the textbook industry, and our children are suffering for it. Textbooks today are subjected to bias and sensitivity reviews that are so stringent, much of our history and literature are censored. Interestingly, this is not an ideological battle where forces of the "left" are beating out the "right" or vice versa. In reality, reviewers have bowed to the extremes of both sides, resulting in an unintended conspiracy to deny reality. In practice, as one of our panelists, Dr. Diane Ravitch, explains in her new book, The Language Police, both the right and left work to exclude certain topics or phrases they find objectionable. The extreme right, for example, opposes any reference to religion since it might conflict with the religious values taught their children at home. The left, on the other hand, opposes any reference that fits racial or gender stereotyping, such as a stay-at-home mother. While one understands the desire to protect religious teaching at home and preventing unfair stereotyping, censorship of this kind can lead to ridiculous outcomes: stories where only fathers stay at home and religion doesn't exist in society. Textbook publishers, which have a virtual monopoly on the market, are subject to immense pressures to portray life as interest groups wish it were, and they are bowing to these special interests. Not only do textbook companies routinely employ bias and sensitivity reviews to root out "biased" material — like acknowledgment of the existence of Mount Rushmore which might offend certain Lakota Indians — but they also attempt to preempt such reviews by providing guidelines to authors prior to writing textbooks. Authors of textbooks are given lists of words not to use when writing. "American" is one word banned by some companies since it might offend those from South or Central America, who might also consider themselves American. "Founding Fathers" is likewise banned as sexist — writers are encouraged to refer to "the Founders" or "the Framers," ignoring that they were, in fact, all men. Even common terms, like "freshman," are banned by some publishers because they may have some negative connotation. Apparently high schools and colleges only have "first-year students," not freshmen. The list goes on and on. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if the U. S. Senate had to conduct its business without using the words religion or race or American. The impact of the pressure exerted on publishers reaches further than just banning certain words and phrases. Information can be wildly skewed. For example, in history books it is now common to read about pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas and their contributions to culture, while ignoring or dismissing some of their backward practices, such as the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. At the same time, the accomplishments of European civilization are downplayed to the extent that some textbooks are more likely to tell about a university in Timbuktu than Oxford or Cambridge. Sometimes these practices cause blatant falsehoods to appear in textbooks. For example, it is not uncommon for American history textbooks to assert that the ideal of American democracy is descended from the practices of Iroquois Indians. Yet they produce no evidence that any of the Founding Fathers cited the Iroquois as inspiration for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Is it possible some of the Members of the Continental Congress knew of Iroquois practices? Yes. Is it clear that significantly influenced their views? No. So we ought not present it to our children as fact. This last set of examples particularly concerns me. Since September 11th, more than at any time in a generation, our country has gone back to school on what it means to be an American. To know our history and values upon which our nation was founded. In many American history classrooms, the textbook is the curriculum. Many teachers of American history were not students of history in college, and are dependent upon the textbook for material. If the textbooks are incomplete, misleading, or blatantly wrong, our children are growing up with a skewed view of our national identity. We have put a stop to this. Former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker said that the public school "was invented to teach immigrant children the three Rs and what it means to be an American with the hope they would then go home and teach their parents." The common school was founded to be one of the principle Americanizing institutions. How can we teach our children the values we share as Americans if words describing them are banned by "language police" at textbook companies? For example, Congress made the National Motto of this country "In God We Trust" in the 1950's. Yet today to mention God in a textbook would cause a political earthquake. Teachers must be free to discuss the fundamentally religious nature of our heritage and at the same time acknowledge the separation of church and state, as provided for in the First Amendment. On the Seal of the United States, a Latin phrase appears: e pluribus unum, out of many, one. How can we become one people, one America, if we can not acknowledge our common culture? How can our children understand our country if they do not know the great struggles we faced. Most of our political history has been about two things: struggling to achieve the idealistic values we ascribe to and balancing those values as they conflict with each other in specific issues. If our history books ignore those conflicts and deny those common values, our children will never know what it means to be an American.