Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Beyond Textbooks
   Ravitch tries to figure out why they're so bad

In The Language Police, Dianne Ravitch documents the way sensitivity guidelines have led to textbooks that interfere with students’ chances to learn critical thinking. Whereas in the past students were kept from liberal education by theories of vocational education, today’s students are kept in the dark by those with theories of a moral order that pretends much of the past was different than it was.

One of her observations gets near to my main complaint about some textbooks: that “voice of God” presenting information as though it simply exists, rather than as a point of view constructed by a human being:

Ravitch notes that one of the major problems in history textbooks is the absence of an author. A name at the end of a chapter would make clear that the account is the product of an individual with distinct interests, tastes, and, even, God forbid, prejudices. And why should students be protected from knowing that “he” once was, and sometimes still is, used as a generic pronoun, or that “negro” was once the commonly endorsed term for African American? To make these issues the subject of discussion in the classroom is to acknowledge the inequities of the past without necessarily condemning the past for not being as enlightened as the present. The contemporary world also needs to be represented as it actually exists. Textbooks that whitewash this world provoke only contempt from students, who know when they are getting a snow job.

One solution to bad texts is primary documents, Ravitch says. But her reviewer deems this impractical.

Of course, if nothing about schooling changes except the text, using primary documents is impractical. But when a stronger emphasis is placed upon local studies, and when schools and libraries make a concerted effort to organize good collections, including materials appropriate for younger students, and when teachers become more familiar with what is already on the internet and of what else might be put there. . .

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/20 at 02:02 AM
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© 2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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