Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Texas-Sized Fight Over Textbooks

By Emil Kunkin Published January 1, 2017

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Sensational claims and seemingly outdated policies bring media attention to the content of Texas' textbooks, but its outsize presence in the national market for textbooks means that Texas statewide standards, which have been criticized as being overly political, can affect the content of textbooks nationwide.
Abstract: Sensational claims and seemingly outdated policies bring media attention to the content of Texas' textbooks, but its outsize presence in the national market for textbooks means that Texas statewide standards, which have been criticized as being overly political, can affect the content of textbooks nationwide.

History, as they say, is written by the winners. It is no surprise then that the way that history and other academic disciplines are presented in textbooks can be a matter of significant dispute. Recently, a debate over the content of textbooks and the Texas curriculum standards reappeared in the news due to outlandish posts on social media by  Mary Lou Bruner, who is running for the Texas State Board of Education. A retired teacher, she is the frontrunner in the Republican primary, and is thus heavily favored to win a seat in the general election to the 15-person Board. Her Facebook posts include claims such as that the Democrats had JFK killed, and that President Obama was once a prostitute, and in 2010, before her campaign, she asserted at a Board of Education meeting that "the Middle Easterners are buying the textbooks…they're using their influence to get what they want in the textbooks." While her theories were the subject of ridicule and derision online, and on television by comedian John Oliver, there is a darker side to the story. Mrs. Bruner may just be one political hopeful, but her potential influence is far-reaching.

This is not the first controversy regarding the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). In 2010, the board approved new standards for social studies that were criticized as overly politicized and distorting history. An independent review of approved social studies textbooks by the Texas Freedom Network found, among other issues, that the textbooks overemphasized the influence of Christianity in world history and the founding of the United States, portrayed Muslims and Islamic civilization in a negative light, discussed politics and government with an openly right-wing slant, and used antiquated terms when referring to sub-Saharan Africa. As Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the nation, the Board's standards do not only affect Texan children; they are used in schools across the nation. The offending books are published by the biggest names in academic publishing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Cengage Learning and more, so Texas is far from a niche market; the politicized standards have an influence on schools far beyond Texas' borders. The SBOE also ran into controversy in 2013 when it delayed the approval of a popular biology textbook over concerns that it presented evolution as more than a theory. Mrs. Bruner claims that "Middle Easterners" are using their buying power to influence the content of American textbooks but, in reality, the opposite seems to hold true; it is Texas who has an outsize influence on their content. The SBOE has the power to force publishers to produce flawed textbooks that not just present partisan accounts of historical and political issues, but of science as well.

Texas, however, is not the only player in the overly political textbook game. A Virginia parent claimed that his elementary-school daughter's history textbook is inaccurate because it over represents the influence of minorities and historically underrepresented groups on American and world history. This conservative perspective is very different from the criticisms of Texan textbooks, but, as opposed as they are, they speak to the same underlying issue, the politicization of textbooks. This problem is not unique to the United States. A fight erupted along partisan lines in South Korea about the way in which textbooks portray North Korea, with conservatives claiming that current textbooks are too generous in their treatment of the North, while liberals claim that the conservatives are acting from ahistorical nationalist impulses. The way that Korean children are taught to think about the split has enormous consequences not just for the Koreas, but indeed for much of the region, given the possibility for future conflict. If textbooks and the education system are overly kind to the North, it could lead to a generation of leaders more willing to acquiesce to the Kim regime's demands, while the contrary could increase the probability of conflict. While this is an extreme example, it highlights the dangers of the over-politicization of textbooks.

It may be easy to dismiss the concerns of the Virginia parent who lamented his daughter's "PC" textbooks, or those of people who want evolution to come with disclaimers, or to laugh at Mary Lou Bruner, but they all highlight the issue of partisanship creeping into textbooks. While it might be inevitable in a highly partisan environment that hot button issues will be presented in a slant in the classroom, textbooks should at least try to remain impartial, especially those intended for middle and elementary school aged children who may lack the critical thinking of older students, as many of the books in the Texas Freedom Network's report were. Textbooks help to shape the ways that children think about the world, and should remain as unbiased as possible, not subject to the whims of politicians.