Sunday, September 06, 2009

Review: Do You Know What Textbooks Your Children Are Really Reading?

Tonight I was flipping channels and caught Tucker Carlson's Fox News exposé on the textbook industry, Do You Know What Textbooks Your Children Are Really Reading?. I'd be remiss to not start out by saying, yes, the inherent political slant of Fox News was conspicuous throughout, and that's the most telling about the textbook problem as a whole.

Carlson has two arguments: activists are trying to include everybody into textbooks, which is diluting knowledge, and there are textbooks furthering a single line of thinking, which excludes the ideas of others. Those all-inclusive thinkers are painted as censors, liberals, and America-haters; the single-issue thinkers are portrayed as bigots, terrorists, white-washers, and America-haters. In many cases, I completely agree: censorship, hate speech, exclusion of truth and the inclusion of bias are all detrimental to the use of textbooks. Carlson's clearly leading towards the revelation that, well, if we can't do either of the extremes, what's left — ah, the Fox World History Textbook is all that's left. It was actually more even-handed than I expected, but they pulled many techniques from the propaganda textbooks: a commentor refers to textbook writers as ignorant, and the show quickly jumps to footage of the Three Stooges; opposing viewpoints are hounded for proof of their statements of fact while sympathetic statements are exempt from proof and are allowed anecdotal evidence; loaded words like "witchhunt", "indoctrination", "manipulation" are suggested by Carlson, not the interviewees, and built on.

Carlson would have had an excellent show if it picked one topic and stuck with it — I would have loved to see a show devoted to picking apart the state textbook review boards, even though it's a long criticized process that shows no sign of weakening anytime soon. An hour of that would have been fascinating, but Carlson stops just before it gets interesting: he has gotten his tidbits of information to assemble into his big picture.

Quickly, he is on to criticizing And Tango Makes Three, referring to it as a gay book even though there is no mention of homosexuality or sex in the book — it's obvious, say the critics, citing context and intent. Later, evolution is criticized for not including dissenting thoughts, not being open to other possibilities — no reading into the possibility that Christian indoctrination is a negative, but evoking hostility towards books on word choice that seems, when viewed a fraction of a sentence at a time, to bias towards Islam. In fact, when they get to the Islamic textbooks, Fox does their own translation and shows only fraction of sentences with heavily charged words, then challenges one of the book's editors. That editor says Fox's translations were off, and offers to show his translation…but is denied, his translation is not shown on the program. That professor, Gregory Starrett, (video here) says the most important thought uttered on the show: textbooks are not causal agents, they do not make people do anything.

The show is jumbled full of "don't teach my children; I do a good enough job," "why won't the schools teach more to our kids", "stop indoctrinating kids with viewpoints I consider negative," "why are my negative viewpoints excluded," with no real answer on what should be done with textbooks, unless textbooks are thus revised to include the viewpoints Fox News approves of. There is no easy answer, until you stop pointing fingers at textbooks — the point is brought up on the edges in several places — and focus on the various curriculum in which the books are included. Carlson is hung up on the isolated flaws, picking apart words and language with the fervor of a politically-correct censor, without really addressing the major flaw: so much weight is placed on the textbook itself. They point out that teachers often revise their curriculum around the book's contents, teachers can pick one viewpoint or another and expand upon it independent of the textbook, they can include an opposing book and juxtapose the two. They use an anecdote of anti-Columbus sentiment in which negative views of our hemisphere's discoverer were given precedence over a more even-handed view. Carlson's report puts up on the screen the cover of the books — but does not point a finger directly at the teacher. A classroom volunteer supporting the Tango book points out anti-gay bullying he's seen in the classroom and is challenged, but what did he do about the bullying?, and ignores the question, continuing to focus on the book. In its interest in censorship of pro-Islamic wording in books, in its willingness to belittle anti-bullying laws because it encourages reading homosexual books to 2nd graders, in trying to show how Creationism is necessary to scientific research, the show misses the point that textbooks are tools used by teachers, by school districts, by education boards. He was close to uncovering the true dangers of textbooks, but failed to look beyond what's printed on the page.

The entire show is online, in YouTube chunks: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5

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