The Case of the Fallacious Textbook

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by Sara Mayeux

Welcome to 2011! I'm honored that TNC has invited me back to kick off the week and the new year with my favorite merry band of reader-commenters in all of Internetland. For those of you who didn't get to know me when I was last here back in July, I am basically a professional reader at this juncture in my life—I'm finishing up a law degree and also working on an American history PhD. As a side gig, I maintain a blog on prison/jail law and policy developments, the uncreatively named Prison Law Blog. Despite my interest in prison issues, I'm not really much of a policy wonk by temperament or inclination, so I'm excited to be visiting here at TNC's place where I can talk about what I really like to talk about—and what I know a lot of you like to talk about, too: the problems of historical memory. (That said, I'll also plan to do some criminal justice blogging while I'm here since I think the problem of hyperincarceration is among the most pressing social justice issues in America today, and one that we should all talk about with someone at least once every day. In case you were still looking for a resolution.)

With that, let's get started. There's been some discussion on this blog about the Virginia history textbook that claims that blacks fought for the Confederacy in large numbers, a Lost Cause canard that the textbook's author—she of the notable historical classics Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty and Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments—copy-pasted into her text from the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. As will probably surprise no one aware that Google is not an ideal drafting tool for an educational text, it turns out that mistake was only the tip of the iceberg. This article from the Washington Post provides a round-up of the errors identified by historians reviewing this and other Virginia textbooks. Shocking though it may be that a textbook could misdate the American entry into World War I, my favorite error is the assertion "that men in Colonial Virginia commonly wore full suits of armor." Williamsburg just got a lot more fun!

Of course there's no excuse for this level of factual and interpretive error in a state-adopted elementary school textbook. Students should be able to expect that they can turn to their textbooks for a reasonably accurate account. Barring that, they should at least be able to expect that they can turn to their textbooks for something other than half-baked nonsense. As the head of the American Historical Association wrote a few months ago when this scandal first broke, it's distressing that our educational system apparently doesn't hold history textbooks to the fairly minimal standard of, "Don't uncritically copy what you found on the Internet."

All that said, I'm just not sure how much weight we should place on the Case of the Fallacious Textbook. It seems to me less of a problem in its own right than an artifact of much broader problems with K-12 education. And I'm not sure we should heap opprobrium upon the author of the textbook, either. She's not the one who decided to hire her to write textbooks, who read her draft and thought it was fit to publish, or who decided Virginia should approve her textbook for classroom use.

Textbooks probably matter less than we might imagine, even allowing that it's fairly troubling that the strange political economy of American education has essentially handed over the project of national curriculum design to Texas and California lobbyists. If students were computers into whom we were programming dates and names via the software of the textbook, then it would certainly be worrisome if the software had a bug. But the model of learning in which students arrive with empty heads into which individual facts are poured until the head is full with educatedness—you may remember seeing a cartoon of this model of learning in the movie Waiting for Superman, but I digress—is not, so far as I know, accepted by anyone with a passing familiarity with the findings of educational psychology.

If I were to identify what should trouble us about the Case of the Fallacious Textbook, it would not be the list of errors but rather the following quote from the Post article, given by a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education:

"Teachers are not reading textbooks front to back, and they're not in a position to identify the kinds of errors that historians could identify," Pyle said.

Now, I appreciate that K-12 classroom teachers can't be fairly expected to have the expertise of professional historians. But I think that those K-12 teachers entrusted with teaching history can and should fairly be expected to know things like when the U.S. entered World War I, or what the Civil War was about. Theoretically it should be possible to issue students a textbook riddled with factual errors because, while that would certainly not be ideal, theoretically that's why we have teachers rather than simply mailing each child the book: to supplement the textbook with richer primary and secondary sources, to identify any basic errors in the textbook, to explain to the students that textbooks like all accounts of history are written by individuals operating under particular blind spots and market pressures and constraints and biases, that textbooks are not neutral or undisputable, etc., etc. (to the extent and in the way appropriate for the students' age level).

If teachers don't feel comfortable doing those things, either because they lack the background in history to identify a textbook's flaws or because they don't have the time and resources and support needed to plan engaging lessons or because they feel they must direct all of their and their students' energies to standardized test prep or whatever other reason, then that exposes deeper issues in how we train, educate, encourage, and incentivize teachers in our society; it's not really the textbook that is the root of the problem. And the truth is, any textbook—even one without the sorts of unacceptable fallacies or strings of factual errors most likely to be exposed by watchdogs—is going to have proofreading errors in a timeline, to make debatable claims, to overlook some dimension of the story, to leave out some perspective— so we need to get to the root of the problem if we really care about giving our children meaningful encounters with history throughout their K-12 years (which we may not, of course, though I hope that's not true). It's not about purging our classrooms of pages that contain mistakes but about realigning all of the structural incentives that would allow such pages to get into the classroom unchallenged in the first place.

Having now succeeded at redescribing what may have at first seemed like a simple policy problem—pick a new textbook—as a much more complicated set of challenges requiring much more ambitious interventions not just in schools but also in the broader culture, I may have convinced of you of nothing more than what I started with: that I'm really not much of a policy wonk by inclination or temperament. Nevertheless, I'll be back later today with a few more thoughts on textbooks to get you through this first painful day back in the cubicle after your new year's festivities.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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