Now that I am facing the end of my time as an undergraduate creative writing major, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the published word. After all, this is what I am aspiring to do: have my work published. I tend to forget that there’s more to the book world than just artful literature; there are books like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so on. These books are considered reference books. Can we really claim that these kinds of books can ever be completely objective? No. The writers of reference books are like elves — happily doing all the dirty work behind the scenes and getting no recognition for it. The only people we can name off the top of our heads are long dead, cough cough Webster cough cough.
While I am not out to condemn the writers of reference materials for not being 100% objective, I am interested in the influence these texts have on us. With oral traditions consisting of mostly urban legends in modern America, history books seem to be the keepers of history itself.
About a week ago I attended a lecture on the separation of church and state as it applies to public education. Richard Katskee, the lecturer, is an attorney and acts as the Assistant Legal Director for a group called American’s United for the Separation of Church and State. While much of the lecture centered on the science and the legal issues of this debate, Katskee raised an interesting point about textbooks. He talked about a debate over what should be included in public school textbooks, and how one state can affect an entire nation.
Any book to be used in the public school classrooms of Texas MUST be approved first by the state of Texas itself. In attorney Katskee’s lecture, I learned that Texas happens to be the nation’s largest market for textbooks, due to it massive size and population. Two of the largest textbook publishers, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin, want to sell their books to this large market, and so they tailor their textbooks in ways that will make them more likely to be approved by the Texas state education board and thus purchased. Textbook publishers aren’t going to print different versions for every other state, so the rest of the nation ends up getting textbooks tailored to Texas’s standards. Kind of unfair, right? Texas politics and ideals are not necessarily the same for Maine or California or Rhode Island. But these states end up getting Texas’s textbooks.
Right now, people in Texas are arguing to change what (and who) is included in history books. Attorney Katskee touched on this in great detail during his lecture. Reverend Peter Marshall, while not a writer of actual textbooks, has argued that certain people mentioned in history, like Thurgood Marshall, are not important enough to be included in our children’s textbooks. Thurgood Marshall was the first African American to serve on the American Supreme Court—apparently that is insignificant to Peter Marshall. Reverend Marshall has taken matters into his own hands, writing books in a series he calls Restoring America Leader’s and Learner’s Guides. He names the men and women (mostly white Christian men to be more specific) he feels are worthy of being in the textbooks. Knowing he can’t leave out pivotal pioneers like the founding fathers, he goes as far as making up false quotes and attributing them to Jefferson, who most of the world now knows to have been a deist, to prove his point that the founders intended the nation to be a Christian nation from the get-go and that the Constitution should be interpreted that way.
In an editorial by Lee Fang that can be found here, we can see that Texas Board of Education committee members are being urged “to remove biographies of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen F. Austin, and César Chávez, and instead add history about the ‘motivational role the Bible and the Christian faith played in the settling of the original colonies.'” While inserting the role of the Bible into the history textbooks is outright unconstitutional, removing the biographies of Washington and Lincoln is a possibility. And if it happens to Texas, it will happen to us all.
Many have written on the power of the written word, but textbooks have monumental power as children are required to read and learn from them. Many in my generation, the children of the late eighties, grew up thinking that Christopher Columbus was a hero, when in reality he did a lot of horrible stuff. Why? Because the textbooks said so.
Some have argued that putting historical figures into textbooks sets them up as heroes. As students, especially those in elementary school, we tend to trust that what our teachers and textbooks tell us is true. If we take people like César Chávez out of history books we are deeming them unimportant. I didn’t think Columbus was a hero simply because he was in the textbooks, but rather because of what the textbook left out about him.
Textbooks can include factual information without warping a child’s mind. If the information is presented factually and objectively, a child can decide for himself whether he wants to look up to Chávez or not. This is an important topic to think about for those who are part of (or want to be in) the publishing world, because what we produce is going to have an affect on those who read it. History textbooks can essentially rewrite history.