If there is anything education does not lack today, it is critics.
So said a former Harvard University president years ago and so it remains years later in California. The state Board of Education likely will face many critics Friday when it considers adopting new history and social science textbooks. But what is at issue here is more than which books are used in public schools. California--traditionally a national leader--can grab an opportunity to truly embrace the multicultural place that it is, or it can implode on solipsistic politics. It all started with something education specialists call a "framework": guidelines adopted three years ago by the state board at the urging of state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig. The guidelines called for, among other things, texts that presented controversial issues honestly and accurately within context and that reflected a "multicultural perspective" describing the experiences of men and women from various racial, religious and ethnic groups.
Houghton Mifflin Co. created an entirely new series of textbooks for kindergarten through eighth grade; Holt Rinehart & Winston developed a new eighth-grade book. Both have been praised within the textbook industry as setting a new standard.
But critics say the books fall short of the lofty goals set forth by the guidelines. Religious groups, gay groups and especially racial and ethnic groups contend that the books don't include enough of their histories.
It's certainly true that textbooks miseducated generations of schoolchildren by presenting a set of unnecessarily narrow facts. Gone, thankfully, are books that leave children with the false impression that Betsy Ross was "it" for American women, George Washington Carver was "it" for African-Americans and that American Indians were merely troublesome gnats in the way of the white man's Manifest Destiny.
The danger now is that a new abuse may occur if political pressures succeed in blocking these books. Some critics say the books are Eurocentric; others believe that a common culture is neither possible nor desirable. Oh, really? In a state as diverse as California, some common culture had better be possible or we're all lost. Here's one oft-cited objectionable textbook sentence: "She had blue eyes and white skin, like an angel." An actual look at the text reveals that sentence is contained within a literature excerpt; the writer was reminiscing about her immigrant childhood and remembering a beloved cousin who died. In that context, the passage hardly suggests bias.
No textbook is perfect, but these books come closer than anything available now. See if you can find in any current grade school history book the voices of fiery populist Mary E. Lease or black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. Or see if you can find excerpts from a Cherokee folk tale, from the letters of Abigail and John Adams, from the works of Norah A. Perez, Willa Cather or Sholem Asch, all used in a context to bring history alive.
You won't find them.
The new books are pluralist and idealistic; woven throughout the text the authors point out the richness of diversity and the dangers of prejudice. In one section, there's even a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of total assimilation.
Some factual errors, most pertaining to the invention or discovery of something being erroneously credited to a European, have been noted and corrected. Future revisions may be merited, but the board should not order wholesale changes that would keep the publisher from getting these books into year-round school use by next summer.
Finally, textbooks are not meant to be the \o7 only\f7 books read by a student. Any child should read books of particular interest--those that tell more of his religious background, those that tell more of her ethnic heritage. But to demand full histories--and only those that could be endorsed by \o7 everyone\f7 ?--of all ethnic and religious groups in this polyglot state would indeed require, as one textbook author suggested, the book bag to be replaced by a wheelbarrow.
A Textbook Case Current Texts Mentions of Indian tribes limited; also no cultural context African history begins with entrance of Europeans: Africans are "immigrants." RECOMMENDED TEXTS 35 pgs. of history, culture of native American Indians 53 pgs. of African history, including anicent civilizations.