Publishing report offers textbook case of deja vu


Blandness: 28 years ago, an abject desire not to offend left students with lousy books. Things haven't changed.

October 03, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

PLUS ca change ...

In four decades of writing about schools and education, I've noticed that things really do stay the same the more they change. Here's a striking example.

Twenty-eight years ago today, The Sun began a six-part series on the textbook business -- how the books read by children in school are written, promoted and purchased.

I did the reporting for the series under a Ford Foundation fellowship arranged by the Education Writers Association. My travels took me to textbook publishers in three states and to Texas and California, two of the 21 states where textbooks are selected for all schools by powerful central adoption committees.

The headline on Part III of the series was "Textbook publishers try to please all, but first they woo the heart of Texas." The books that are sold throughout the country, I reported, were so bland because they'd been rendered lifeless to please the adoption panels in Texas and California.

Those states, which dominated the textbook market, wanted no conflict, certainly no violence, no sex, no love, no hate -- "in short, much of the reality of children's lives."

Combine that with pressures from women, blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and a dozen other groups ranging from meatpackers to unions to "right-to-work" advocates, I wrote, "and it is understandable that textbook publishers are pulling their hair."

I gave a number of examples. "At no time in the immediate future will a woman appear in the kitchen," I wrote, "at least in a picture in an American textbook." Sombreros -- even if propped against a fence post -- were out because they symbolized laziness. Publishers had balanced their books precisely by race and gender, in both text and illustration.

And on and on. The idea was not to offend anyone. The result was blandness, especially in history books.

That was then. This is now. The Fordham Institute, a think tank that tilts slightly to the right, is just out with a report titled "The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption." It comes to almost exactly the conclusion I did in 1976 and blames it on publishers' caving in to pressure in Texas and California.

"Textbook adoption has been hijacked by pressure groups," the report says. "Textbooks are now judged not by their style, content, or effectiveness, but by the way they live up to absurd sensitivity guidelines. Do literary anthologies have more male than female story characters? Do textbooks portray stereotypes such as female nurses or male mechanics?

"Do history textbooks suggest that religious strife has been a cause of conflict in human history? Do they mention junk food, magic, or prayer; suggest that the old are wise or the young are vigorous; or leave out any ethnic, racial, or religious group, no matter how small? If they do, that is grounds to have a textbook rejected."

That's why you had lousy history textbooks, and why your children do today.

Through the mists of time, the mists of a fat stogie

Some things do change. Reporting for the textbook series, I interviewed two top officials of the Open Court Publishing Co. in the firm's board room in Peru, Ill.

A public relations man took a photograph of the occasion and mailed it to me two weeks later. It's in my hopeless chest.

I was smoking a cigar.

Button-pushing kids push to victory in cell phone war

I noticed on a recent visit to a city high school that nearly every student totes a cell phone and that between classes there's a flurry of instant messaging, much of it, I guessed, between kids in the same hallway.

Quite simply, the students have won the war. Cellular phones are now de rigueur, and there is no way officials can ban them outright (although they can prohibit their use in class).

There's a safety issue, as well. Since Columbine, many parents have insisted they be able to contact their children in an emergency.

In the past two years, several states, including Maryland, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada and Michigan, have relaxed rules about cell phones in schools.

Hood College may thrive thanks to male delivery

Hood College's gamble in admitting male residential students last year might be paying off.

The school in Frederick has enrolled its largest incoming freshman class in 26 years and has reached its highest overall enrollment in nearly a decade.

Moreover, the number of men on campus has reached a critical mass. This fall, there are nearly 200 undergraduate men at Hood. Their dating cohort is 841 women.

Engineering in the U.S. acquires a foreign accent

Today, more than 50 percent of the engineers with doctoral degrees working in the United States are foreign-born, according to the National Science Foundation. In addition, 45 percent of math and computer scientists with doctorates were born outside the United States.

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