Exclusive: Review: ‘The Trouble with Textbooks – Distorting History and Religion’

The Trouble with Textbooks – Distorting History and Religion (Lexington Books 2008) by Gary Tobin and Dennis Ybarra even more relevant today. “This book is a case study of the information and message in American classrooms: how factual they are, how inclusive, how balanced.” Textbooks today have what Tobin and Ybarra call a “booming authorial voice.” Consequently, knowledge and scrutiny of the evaluation process of textbooks, supplementary classroom materials, and teacher in-services are needed as never before. This study involves 28 textbooks from the three major publishers: Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, and McGraw-Hill. The insight into and the documentation of this study are both penetrating and frighteningly revealing.

School text books “matter deeply” especially in the realm of social studies: history, geography, and comparative religions that tell the stories of American and world civilizations. Tobin and Ybarra have examined these texts, supplements and professional teacher training as to their accuracy and objectivity. Their findings “…demonstrated every thing from grade-level appropriate balance and impeccable facts to head-scratching mistakes, omissions, and mischaracterizations that bordered on propaganda.”

While the authors did not find any single publisher’s product or product line significantly more problematic than the others, Tobin and Ybarra did find that the scholarship of many textbook authors on the whole is poor. Much of the actual textbook writing is done by incompetent writers with very little expertise. “Shoddy scholarship also means the inclusion of false ‘facts,’ inaccurate generalizations, imprecise conclusions, repudiated theories, and sometimes, rumors that have taken on the weight of truth with grounding in academic inquiry.”

Currently the textbook business is worth $3.7 billion but maintains only a small profit margin. Consequently, the textbook material is often out of date, inaccurate, and dumbed down. Electronic publishing creates a disincentive for costly reprints. The overuse of sidebars, illustrations, and exercises has not left room for meaningful narrative about history. The nonpartisan American Textbook Council, historians, and educators evaluated the majority of textbooks in use in American schools as “overly detailed at points and superficial at others.” This results in confusion, boredom, and the consequent inability of students to think critically.

Publishers and textbook committees are exposed to all kinds of pressure group bias: the left, the right, the multiculturalists, the religious, and the non religious. The left is concerned with how individuals and groups are presented, while the right is concerned with morality and religion. Multiculturalism demands that comparisons are avoided, and all people are equally celebrated. California, for example, has a 1980s bias guideline. Consequently, textbooks follow closely the “cultural equivalence narrative.” This narrative celebrates everybody and tends to leave out unpleasant historical facts. Unfortunately, by withholding facts, the students don’t have the perceptions to form the concepts necessary for higher level thinking. Simplistic accounts of history are damaging. Blatant subjectivity too often exists in the telling of historical stories about the origins of civilization, the birth of nations, and the character of people.

The Council on Islamic Education is one such pressure group which subjectively retells the history of the Middle East etc. This council is of particular concern for Tobin and Ybarra, both of whom are associated with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Muslim groups provide assistance to publishers in textbook content areas. In addition, materials and teacher training are prepared by Muslim and Arab interest groups; often such material is pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian. The authors, especially cognizant of such bias, allocate a good portion of the book to dealing with the poor textbook scholarship concerning Jews, Judaism, Israel, and the Middle East. Their examination is based on thorough and precise methodology. These authors in their analysis of the 28 textbooks found over 500 specific and notable problematic entries about Jews, Judaism and Israel. Tobin and Ybarra provoke the reader into thoughtful contemplation of this serious problem:

The careful (and sometimes careless) selection of certain facts and omission of others, the explicit or implicit support for one set of values over another, is more than merely an intellectual exercise, a difference of opinion among well-intentioned people. These choices reveal our deep and conflicted political, religious, and ethical convictions, the beating, often divided heart of our American community. No wonder the battle for control of the textbooks is fought so vigorously.