Washington Post: Proposed Texas textbooks are inaccurate, biased and politicized, new report finds. This is a perennial problem, ably dealt with in James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995), but I doubt the problem will go away any time soon. As long as we have public schools, and textbooks prescribed by a central board responsible to politicians, then we will have various interest groups fighting over what gets included in those textbooks, and how it is portrayed. Those groups will often endorse an understanding of a topic that is at odds with what professional historians know about it – and those groups, alas, can be well-funded and populous, meaning that they have the clout to get their ideas in print. Although even professional historians can have their own biases and blind spots, if you want a complex, knowledgeable, and true version of a topic in history, you’re probably better off finding out what the consensus is among people who, for a living (paid by a university, not a for-profit corporation), investigate the human past using primary source documents, and subject their findings to the judgment of others who do the same thing. John Locke’s Social Contract really was more influential on the founders than the Hebrew notion of a Sacred Covenant, for instance.
But what can be done? Professional historians could form their own lobby of the state textbook board, or somehow contrive get the state supreme court to deliver a judgment that only historians get to determine textbook content (since The Truth can never be the subject of a popularity contest!). But there are enough disagreements among historians, and enough of them who dispute the very notion of “truth,” that this setup would soon descend into farce. My own inclination is toward decentralization. Instead of having a central board that makes decisions for the entire state, and the apocalyptic struggles that inevitably ensue over content, how about devolving textbook selection to the local school board, to the school in question, or even to the individual teacher, who would be free to select textbooks as she sees fit directly from the various publishers? Of course, in order for this setup to be effective, you would need genuinely knowledgeable teachers – those who have taken more courses in history than in how to decorate their classrooms. Given the strength of the education lobbies that operate in each state, this is also unlikely to happen.
So let me propose this to the American Historical Association and/or the Organization of American Historians: a committee on high school textbooks, that issues seals of approval that publishers can display on the covers of the books (like the Caldecott Medal on my kid’s copy of Make Way for Ducklings, and the inverse of the warning stickers about evolution being “just a theory”), along with a public relations campaign to raise awareness of it. Request the best! Demand an AHA-approved textbook! (I realize that the same squabbles might break out on an AHA committee that would break out on the statewide textbook committee dominated by professional historians that I have imagined above, but hopefully such disputes would be less public and have lower stakes, meaning that consensus might be easier to reach.)