Textbooks from the Idea Grinder

December 11, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

Washington.-- LYNNE CHENEY said a mouthful last month. To be sure, it was a mouthful many others have voiced before, but as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she speaks from a prestigious rostrum. Listen in:

''Many of the textbooks used in American schools are so dull that no one would read them voluntarily. We continue to teach reading with basal readers that make the very idea of books seem boring. We continue to teach history with textbooks that drain all drama out of the past.''

Listen to Mrs. Cheney on teacher preparation. She quotes a history teacher in Los Angeles:

''My preparation was worthless, almost worthless.'' Across the country, countless teachers have been making similar complaints. They repeatedly speak of time wasted when they describe their professional preparation. Prospective teachers are compelled to take many courses ''more likely to confuse and mislead than to enlighten.''

Mrs. Cheney sounded off in a 52-page report to Congress on educational practices that have gone wrong. She uses as her text a quotation from philosopher William James. When need and motive are hugely combined, they tend to develop a ''tyrannical machine,'' with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption. In Mrs. Cheney's view, this is exactly what has happened to public education in the United States.

As she acknowledges, she is saying nothing new. When he was secretary of education, Bill Bennett harped repeatedly on these themes. Over the past 40 years such critics as Mortimer Smith, Arthur Bestor, Rudolf Flesch and Hyman Rickover said the same things.

Only a few months ago the Brookings Institution gave its auspices to a full-blown study that came to the same conclusion: The faults of our system of public education are rooted primarily in an entrenched educational bureaucracy. Without a revolution against the establishment, no reforms are likely to amount to a great deal.

Meanwhile, the news is mostly bad news. Pupils are stuck with baby-food textbooks because the ''tyrannical machine'' produces them.

To mollify provincial boards of education, an insignificant battle in the Civil War will be resurrected. To pacify militant feminists, obscure women will be elevated to undeserved recognition. To demonstrate sensitivity toward minorities, the authors of textbooks will dutifully meet a quota of references and inclusions.

Mrs. Cheney says: ''The necessity to include so much means that little attention can be paid to context. Textbooks come to seem like glossaries of historical events. Military engagements and scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs all float free, unmoored from what came before or after.''

It is an ''admirable goal,'' in her view, to give more attention to women and minorities in the humanities, but the goal is not well served by tokenism.

She cites a textbook in American literature that carries a portrait of Phillis Wheatley. The caption identifies her as a poet who was once a slave. George Washington admired her work. That is all one learns about Phillis Wheatley.

In point of fact, Phillis Wheatley must have been a fascinating person. Born in Senegal about 1753, she was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Boston in 1761.

She became a maidservant to the wife of John Wheatley and took the family name. She began writing poetry at 13, married a free Negro, went to England in 1773 and enjoyed great popularity there. She died in 1784.

None of this story is told in the textbook cited by Mrs. Cheney, but this is the kind of story that legitimately could be included in a textbook for students of American literature. The common practice, as she notes, is to surrender to the checklist provided by a tyrannical machine. Are minority poets mentioned? Yes. On to the next question.

The news is not altogether bad. California is now demanding that textbooks must be so well written that ''students will read them with interest, enthusiasm and pleasure.''

It seems little enough to ask, but the textbook machine is not geared for writing that is ''vivid and dramatic without sacrificing accuracy.''

Propelled by the hydraulic force of political pressure groups, the educational machine grinds along. Students, teachers, principals, school boards -- they are all ground up together.

This may be a fine way to make sausage. It is a terrible way to teach our children.

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