It's in the Book: Napoleon Won after All!

March 22, 1992|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,Mike Bowler, a former American history teacher, edits Other Voices, The Evening Sun's opposite-editorial page.

Mel Gabler is 77 years old now. For 30 years he and his wife, Norma, have been poring over textbooks offered for use in Texas schools, looking for errors of fact, for left-leaning ideology and anti-Americanism.

The two started in their Longview home, eventually moving to a 9,000-square-foot office with six employees. Texans listened to them. So did the textbook publishers. Texas and California, where decisions on textbook ''adoption'' are made for the entire state by committees of educators, are the make-or-break

markets in the text publishing industry. And when Norma Gabler made her annual trek to Austin, long list of complaints in hand, the textbook representatives gritted their teeth -- and altered their books to satisfy their conservative Texas clients.

This year the whole world heard the Gablers. The couple, and others reviewing the American history adoption in Texas, took pains to separate their fundamentalist views from the plain errors of fact they had been spotting for years. They suspected that Texas educators and the media would pay more attention, and (( they were right.

Mel Gabler said his reviewers found nearly 8,000 errors in 10 books submitted for approval this year, ''and we didn't even look at spelling and punctuation.''

One book had President Truman dropping ''the bomb'' on Korea, thus ending the Korean War. The same book said Napoleon won at Waterloo. Another book placed the Civil War battle of Vicksburg in Tennessee instead of Mississippi. And so on. What is worse, the state school board already had demanded that the publishers correct errors that had been spotted earlier, whereupon the Christian groups found hundreds of additional examples.

Members of the state school board and Texas politicians expressed outrage. For the $20 million to be spent on the history books, they said, Texans deserved better. One board member, tongue in cheek, suggested that the Japanese might do a superior job of producing school materials.

The publishers, foot in mouth, admitted the errors -- they had little choice -- but defended the books. ''It seems to me,'' said a lawyer for the Association of American Publishers, ''the fundamental question on the table is whether the state wants books that are considered overall good books. The error thing has made them look bad, [but] they meet new and innovative requirements.''

But those familiar with the textbook industry weren't surprised at the ''error thing.'' Indeed, factual errors (and they occur with distressing regularity in math and science books as well as histories) are only one problem with textbooks and the process of selecting them.

Many textbooks are written by a committee whose members are deliberately selected from around the country to give the product a universal air. (And nothing of quality was ever produced by committee.)

The books are formidable, several pounds and 800 or more pages. Contemporary books are ''a triumph of the layout artist and the graphic artist,'' according to critic Gilbert T. Sewall, with endless charts, boxes and study exercises. In what remains, said Mr. Sewall, ''computers measure sentence length, count syllables and check vocabulary against approved word lists. The result is anemic Dick and Jane prose like the following found in one elementary-level textbook: 'The United States was settled by people from all over the world. Many of them became naturalized citizens. Most immigrants settled on the East Coast, a crowded part of the country. In the 1970s, Americans began moving to the Sunbelt.' ''

The publishers, sometimes rushing to get their books approved in Texas and California, can do a surprisingly poor job of editing and fact-checking. But the blame has to be shared by those who choose which books to buy. Most of them are teachers. In Texas, the state board's own panel of textbook reviewers (dominated by teachers) failed to spot most of the errors found by the Gablers.

''The sad fact is that teachers don't seem to care much about the quality of the writing, either,'' said Harriet Tyson, a Washington writer who studied the textbook industry and wrote a book titled ''A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco.''

One publisher in the Midwest, who asked not to be named, said he doubts that members of most textbook selection committees (whether they be statewide, as in Texas, or districtwide, as in Maryland) actually read the books they select.

The criticism might be taken lightly were it not for the fact that textbooks are the most intimate tool of the teacher's trade; as much as 80 percent of instructional time in some classes revolves around textbooks.

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