The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A tale of two textbooks

I noticed an interesting, and perhaps a bit frightening contrast in two recent articles on textbooks. One focused on political correctness in the US textbook industry; the other looked at changes in textbooks used in China.

From "
Aiming for diversity, textbooks overshoot" in the 8/19/06 edition of The Wall Street Journal ($ paid subscription required):

To facilitate state approval and school-district purchasing of their texts, publishers set numerical targets for showing minorities and the disabled. In recent years, the quest to meet these targets has ratcheted to a higher level as technological improvements enable publishers to customize books for individual states, and as photos and illustrations take up more textbook space.

Although publishers describe these numbers as guidelines, many people familiar with educational publishing say they are strict quotas that must be adhered to. Moreover, in filling these quotas, publishers screen out a wide range of images they deem stereotypical, from Asian math students to barefoot African children.

Some educators complain that, at best, the efforts reflect political correctness gone awry -- and, at worst, that publishers are putting politics, and sales, ahead of student learning.

"There's more textbook space devoted to photos, illustrations and graphics than there's ever been, but frequently they have nothing to do with the lesson," says Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and author of "The Language Police," a 2003 study of textbook censorship. "They're just there for political reasons, to show diversity and meet a quota of the right number of women, minorities and the disabled."

Also from the article:

For a spread on world cultures, one major publisher vetoed a photo of a barefoot child in an African village, on the grounds that the lack of footwear reinforced the stereotype of poverty on that continent, according to an employee familiar with the situation. It was replaced with a photo of a West African girl wearing shoes and a gingham dress.

Some textbooks shortchange depictions of important historical figures. As submitted to Texas for adoption in 2002, McGraw-Hill's "The American Republic Since 1877" included a profile and photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. But there was no mention or image of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. After a Texas activist who advocates for more patriotic textbooks complained, McGraw-Hill added a passage and photo about the Wrights. A company spokeswoman said the brothers had been left out inadvertently.

Although publishers don't have numerical targets for religious affiliation, they're wary of slighting any faith. Rubin Pfeffer, a former executive with Pearson Education, says its marketing department vetoed a cover illustration for a 2005 first-grade reader of a pig walking down the street, on the basis that it might offend Jews or Muslims who don't eat pork. Pearson spokeswoman Wendy Spiegel says a beaver was substituted on the cover, but the inside pages featured a "beautifully illustrated" pig.

While we're stuffing our textbooks with political correctness and ideology, the Chinese are doing the opposite. From "Where's Mao? Chinese revise history books" in the 09/01/06 edition of the New York Times:

When high school students in Shanghai crack their history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and Communist revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization.

Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette.

Nearly overnight the country’s most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950’s. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today’s economic and political goals.


The new text focuses on ideas and buzzwords that dominate the state-run media and official discourse: economic growth, innovation, foreign trade, political stability, respect for diverse cultures and social harmony.

J. P. Morgan, Bill Gates, the New York Stock Exchange, the space shuttle and Japan’s bullet train are all highlighted. There is a lesson on how neckties became fashionable.

The French and Bolshevik Revolutions, once seen as turning points in world history, now get far less attention. Mao, the Long March, colonial oppression of China and the Rape of Nanjing are taught only in a compressed history curriculum in junior high.

“Our traditional version of history was focused on ideology and national identity,” said Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University. “The new history is less ideological, and that suits the political goals of today.”

Now, I'm no expert on textbooks - haven't seen the books in question, nor have I seen previous editions to be able to track trends in coverage. But if these two articles are correct, it's pretty easy to see which country is more focused on national success and progress.

The Chinese continue to make incredible economic progress, they're making great scientific advances, and their focus on education is impressive as well (see here and here). Meanwhile, we're focusing on political correctness in our textbooks while we play games to mask our 30% dropout rate and low levels of academic proficiency, and treat science like an ugly stepchild.

Can we not see how this movie ends?


  • This is a very insightful post. I love the way you weave the two articles together. An enjoyable read.

    By Blogger Mark Montgomery, at 2:57 AM  

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