Education by Ballot


August 30, 1991|By MORRIS FREEDMAN

COLLEGE PARK — The Board of Regents in New York recently voted 12 to 3 to revise the state's history textbooks to give greater emphasis on minorities.

However noble its intention, the act is another effort to shape learning by vote. We contend lately about content of high school and college courses not in terms of truth or falsity but of pressures. We settle ideological and scientific differences not by analysis, discussion and consensus but by counting our supporters.

Using political clout to resolve disputes about education can only be pernicious. One of the unhappiest consequences of the periodic confrontations in Texas over textbook selection was how easily the substance of controversy got ignored. The liberal People for the American Way claimed victory simply for being allowed to oppose Mr. and Mrs. Mel Gabler, of Longview, Texas, leading right-wingers. Both sides based their cases in good measure on the strength of their constituencies, less on that of their arguments, which had become tiringly familiar.

I think of the kindergarten teacher who brought a kitten to class. ''Is it a boy or a girl?'' a child asked. ''Let's vote,'' another called out.

For all its importance in a democracy, sheer voting on matters where knowledge is primary can hardly decide conclusively what students learn. Should Tennessee schools today be emphasizing creationism because the jury in the Scopes trial voted in behalf of William Jennings Bryan's client rather than Clarence Darrow's?

Yet strong-arm advocacy groups keep trying to get their way through ballot.

They seek to ban classical and modern works because they don't approve the language or the plot. They compel dictionary makers to delete certain words or to color neutral explanations of controversial subjects. Publishers have actually changed definitions to meet prevailing wishes in a community.

Extremists use the power of the ballot when they fear they cannot get their way through evidence and persuasion. Textbooks in New York conceivably might have slighted achievements of minorities. But wouldn't the professional responsibility of publishers, editors, historians and teachers have corrected imbalances in the course of normal and frequent revision? Wouldn't the fierce competitiveness of publishing itself beget valid change?

In the last half-century, textbooks in American history have dramatically altered their accounts of slavery, Indian treaties, immigration, the rise of women, the civil-rights movement, labor and capital strife. We can expect continued, careful recasting of similarly sensitive subjects in response to more informed, more enlightened, scholarship.

Did the regents really think that only their vote could expunge what they described as a white, Eurocentric bias in the state's history texts? Isn't the danger greater that such a vote would generate its own distortions?

Government agencies should keep hands off books except to insure they remain as free and responsible as all our information media. We know how Nazi slanting of teaching and erosion of knowledge contributed to Germany's defeat. The Soviets are confronting their present crises in good part because they so long suppressed free historical, economic and philosophical study.

We should not allow political adversarial processes, crass left or right lobbying, this generous enthusiast or that cramped crank who can generate a following, to stake out the boundaries and shade the subtleties of what students learn.

We should not teach history or the gender of small domestic felines on basis of polls.

A former editor of Commentary, Morris Freedman has taught at the University of Maryland and elsewhere.

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