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Editorial

Gays in textbooks: Best told by historians, not by politicians

The decision to include "the role and contributions" of gay Americans in our textbooks should be left to educators and textbook writers, not politicians.

April 08, 2011

Politicians don't write good textbooks, and they shouldn't try. That's true in Texas, where conservatives on the state Board of Education ordered up changes in history books, such as minimizing the racism inherent in the interning of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, downplaying the role of founding father Thomas Jefferson in part because he coined the phrase "separation of church and state," and reducing references to Islam.

It's also true in California, where liberals in the Legislature are pushing a bill that would require textbooks to include, according to Times reporter Patrick McGreevy, "the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans." A similar bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.

Does the idea have a better chance five years later, with Jerry Brown as governor? We hope not. Years ago, California made the wise decision to have experts draw up a balanced social studies curriculum that became a model for schools nationwide. Legislators aren't improving education in the state by stuffing the curriculum with new politically correct requirements, any more than Texas board members improved education there.

That's not to say textbooks shouldn't address the struggle against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Though there is still a long way to go, gays and lesbians have made huge gains in recent decades and are now making history with their quest for full marriage rights. These battles no doubt have a legitimate place in the social studies curriculum. But that's a decision for educators and textbook writers to make. If more is added to the social studies curriculum, something else will have to be deleted or treated more shallowly. Teachers already struggle to get through all the required material before the state's standardized tests are administered in the spring.

The bill, SB 48, adds to an overly long list of requirements, some more reasonable than others, that have been pressed upon the state's textbooks over the years. Minority groups, the elderly and the disabled must be represented proportionally and never portrayed in a bad light. People in poor countries aren't supposed to be shown as poor, lest they be stereotyped, and information on AIDS in Africa must not reflect negatively on the continent. So poor people aren't poor and the elderly are physically fit and financially sound, according to the textbooks — and we complain that students are poorly educated.

Fables don't make for solid instruction. History is the great story of people, groups and movements — their faults as well as their accomplishments — shaping the world up through the events of today. It is a story best told by historians, not by politicians.

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