Textbooks: The Bad, the Worse, the Politics

If you haven’t been keeping up, since President Obama’s re-election, Republicans have morphed into a bunch of embittered, whiny, cranky crybabies. Mitt Romney, blaming his loss on Obama “gifts” to special groups. Paul Ryan, blowing dog-whistle about the large turnout of the “urban vote.” And then there’s the pièce de résistance, Peter Morrison.

This little-known Tea Party wacknut in Texas is demanding “an ‘amicable divorce’ from…the ‘maggots’” who voted for Obama. (If you’re reading this post, 99.9% chance he’s talking about you!) Morrison’s tomfoolery about Texas seceding from the U.S. is easy enough to dismiss.

What’s not so easy to overlook is this nugget from the Star-Telegram column on his temper tantrum:

Oh, did I mention that Morrison was chosen by former State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy to help screen Texas public school textbooks?

via the New York Times via Larry Kolvoord/Austin American-Statesman/AP

Did you catch that? Let me connect the dots.

Even in this digital age, with all the fervor to integrate technology into the curriculum, textbooks are still the main weapon in any teacher’s armory. They are the primary go-to source for disseminating knowledge, ideas, information to students. And for many years, Texas has wielded incredible clout in the textbook market. Because of its size and purchasing power, national textbook publishers catered to the State Board’s demands and changed textbooks to meet Texas standards.

Texas and its 15-member elected state school board of education have left fingerprints on classrooms across the country. What that means: a stark raving racist like Peter Morrison once had a hand in vetting textbooks that are likely being used in your child’s school, even though you may live thousands of miles from Texas.

While the notion may sound far-fetched, the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 approved sweeping and controversial changes to history and social studies textbooks used in public schools. It is completely within the realm of possibility that Morrison inspired some of the more offensive changes that twisted historical facts, like replacing the term “slave trade” with “Atlantic triangular trade” and teaching that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II wasn’t motivated by race.

Since liberating Texas from the lunatic fringe isn’t a viable solution, its outsized influence on textbooks is distressing. But it’s really bigger than the Lone Star state. It’s systemic. According to Truthdig, a political writer for The Atlantic discovered a high school history textbook taught America’s millennial generation that the threat of terrorism “can be eliminated, the Patriot Act was uncontroversial and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” Even contemporary history – like 9/11 and the War on Terrorism – is a victim of disinformation and distortion.

Textbooks are written with a political agenda because choosing textbook content is a political process. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Historical interpretation will always be contentious because histories are always incomplete and complicated. Vigorous debate is good. Making textbooks a tug of war between conservatives and liberals (and dueling political ideologies), not so much.

The responsibility for textbooks should rest with scholars and educators, not politicians. That’s the funny thing about pols. They have a tendency to politicize decisions. The alternative is that our kids, regardless of where we live, get “educated” in Texas.