DUMB AND DUMBER
Challenging bias, illogic, and
wrong-headedness in public schools
Most of the
people I voted for in this month’s election did not win the offices
they sought. Some losses sting more than others, though, and the sad
thing about one fundamentalist Christian’s failed bid for a seat on
the San Luis Coastal Unified School District Board is that her
campaign, based partly on a crusade against textbook bias that I wrote
favorably about last February, never sparked a debate about whether
ideas we take for granted are actually true.
candidate’s charge that special interest groups write anti-Christian
bias into textbooks, one well-spoken high school sophomore wrote in an
essay for the Tribune that his textbooks strive to be fair.
Moreover, he added, who’s to say what a special interest group is when
we’re all special?
This public exchange between school board candidate and student was a
classic example of what happens when two people talk past each other.
Sadly, the student got high-fives from admirers for his superficial
argument and the candidate responded with a citation of bias that left
most of the kid’s argument unchallenged. Some days later, the smoke
cleared, the votes were tallied up, and conventional wisdom had
waltzed through another political campaign without a reality check.
With that in
mind, I say better late than never. It’s time to ask for some form of
identification before selling beer and cigarettes to popular
assumptions about education. Here are four beliefs that should be
challenged, no matter who sits on the school board or what we’re
thankful for come Turkey Day:
schools have the best interests of children at heart.
This may be the mother of all educational fallacies. Horace Mann, the
father of compulsory public education in America, modeled his creation
on what he saw while visiting 19th-century Prussia (now Germany).
Looking around at the dawn of the Industrial Age, Mann realized that
factory workers would be needed. Assembly line work requires obedience
more than independent thought, so schools that Mann helped organize
were designed to graduate legions of obedient workers. Whether schools
still do that is something people can argue about, but goals like
developing the whole person or teaching kids how to think on their
feet weren’t as important to Mann and his backers as making sure that
education served society, which to them was organized from the top
down rather than from the bottom up. After Mann died, American
philosopher John Dewey decided that common schools, which until then
were considered extensions of the home, actually served communities.
Dewey’s shift in emphasis made teachers more answerable to governments
than to parents, and it’s with us still.
Many influential people think children are state property. The
Wisconsin Teachers’ Association described kids that way in 1865, and
the Justice Department’s “rescue” of Elian Gonzales just two years ago
was brought to you by the same thinking.
parents who don’t see their kids as human resources become suspects in
the eyes of the educational establishment.
Everyone expects totalitarian regimes to treat people like property,
but because it would be unwise to admit that our own government also
treats kids like state parks, bureaucrats pretend, and sometimes
believe, that everything they do is “for the children.” Although
parents have little say in decision making unless they organize, local
officials usually give them a chance to feel heard by sounding off in
two-minute increments at the end of school board meetings. That school
boards meet on weeknights and public comments are typically scheduled
close to midnight just makes things more interesting.
School can be
neutral about religion.
This confuses neutrality with civility. Any attempt to value all
religions equally must reject the idea that any one religion has
divine roots, and when you reject something, you’re not being neutral
about it. On the other hand, religious tolerance as an idea that helps
us all be polite to each other can be traced back to the fusion of
faith and politics achieved exclusively in the Judeo-Christian West.
Anyone who sneers at that claim by pointing to the Crusades and the
Inquisition as relevant examples of “Christian intolerance” only
proves him- or herself ignorant of Christianity’s liberalizing
influence, not to mention the changes wrought by an era between then
and now called the Enlightenment.
equal. Not always. When
deciding how history teachers should talk about Christianity in the
United States as opposed to Buddhism, Islam, or any other religion,
it’s important to remember that fair can mean proportional rather than
equal. Starting with the Puritans and continuing up to now,
Christianity has had more influence on American history than any other
religion. Government schools can’t afford to pretend otherwise without
doing violence to the accuracy of the historical record.
Contraceptive-based sex education is more effective than
abstinence-based sex education.
This assumption is a perennial favorite with activists like Nipomo’s
own Bill “Condoms for everybody” Denneen, but no one knows if it’s
true. Abstinence-based education hasn’t been around long enough to
study its long-term consequences yet. Early signs are more encouraging
than the contraceptive corps cares to admit, however. A Heritage
Foundation report from April 2002 cites ten different scientific
evaluations that demonstrate the effectiveness of abstinence education
programs in changing teenage sexual behavior for the better. On the
other hand, a recent study in the British Journal of Health
Economics found no evidence that family planning clinics help
reduce pregnancy among young teenagers. Embarrassingly for Planned
Parenthood, when a court case in 1984 temporarily restricted teen
access to family planning clinics in the United Kingdom, teen
pregnancy rates fell. Maybe G.K. Chesterton was right to quip that
“birth control” actually means “no birth and no control.”
need help from the rest of us to inspect these and other assumptions
of progressive education, not because alternative assumptions are
always better, but because bumper sticker advice to “question
authority” applies even when people who marched against “The Man” and
“The System” now hold down the jobs they used to demonstrate against.
[published in New
Times (San Luis Obispo) issue of November 21 to 28]
HEY, WHERE'S JESUS?
Three cheers for the Morro Bay woman who complained
about anti-Christian bias in the history textbook used by her son's middle
school. Cynics may frown on her successful effort to alert the media about
her concerns, but Jennifer Shroder is the kind of parent who keeps
public education honest by supporting teachers and pestering school
By slamming Houghton Mifflin publishing company's
"Across the Centuries," a textbook used throughout the state for a decade,
Shroder opened herself to ridicule. Well-meaning critics were quick to
point out that like every other textbook approved for use in California,
that one was reviewed by subject matter experts. Early editions even went
through a round of public comment, though it hardly needs saying that
questions about pro-Islamic or anti-Christian bias have more resonance now
than they did before last September. Unfortunately, neither expert review
nor public input makes the textbook selection process foolproof.
Four or five companies (estimates vary) dominate 70
percent of the textbook publishing market for grades K to 12. That fact
alone does not reflect poorly on textbook quality, but as Los Angeles
Times columnist Matthew Miller wrote in 1997, California, Texas, Florida
and 17 other states approve books "through a politicized process marred by
ideological warfare, shoddy analysis and occasional corruption." Combine a
near-monopoly in a four-billion-dollar market with an inept selection
process, and undeserving books are bound to be approved.
A feature story in the October 30, 2000 issue of
Forbes magazine cited serious errors in science and math textbooks used
nationwide. The same article observed that Delaine Eastin, California's
superintendent of public instruction, "has sought and received campaign
contributions from textbook publishers."
There is no reason to think that history textbooks
are exempt from the problems facing many math and science textbooks. Just
this week, the February 4, 2002 issue of Time magazine quotes researcher
Harriet Tyson as saying that textbook evaluation is the weakest link in
the chain between educational publishers and the students who use their
Unsurprisingly, anyone can find textbook flaws that
expert reviewers either missed or ignored. Shroder seems at least as
intelligent as the general building contractor with no journalism
experience who alerted former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg to bias in TV
news. Asked why she filed the formal complaint, Shroder insists that she
has no quarrel with the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. "We have
to change the textbook standards of California," she says.
To people who wonder why children do not just ask
permission to skip lessons they find offensive for religious or other
reasons, Shroder makes an obvious but often-overlooked point: "Opting
out requires discernment that kids don't yet have."
Some critics charge that Shroder is insecure in her
Christian faith and unwilling to expose her older son to even a glimpse of
Islam for fear of "corrupting" him, but that argument collapses quickly.
Insofar as it is possible to speculate about her motivations, love, anger,
and responsibility seem to motivate Shroder far more than fear. What she
objects to is a shamelessly partisan textbook, not the impartial study of
religion or religious influence. Amateur psychologists who think
differently have never talked to her.
Memo to textbook selection officials: Shroder has
no plans to shut up and start homeschooling. If lots of devoutly religious
people did that, your per-pupil reimbursement money would go away, so pop
another Excedrin and pay attention: "There is more to this than the
textbook," Shroder says. "This is about freedom. My parental and
religious rights are getting stomped on."
Quite possibly. But this controversy starts with the
book, so I borrowed "Across the Centuries" from a fine upstanding neighbor
kid and read it myself. Turns out that although some of the examples
Shroder cites in her ten-page analysis seem nit-picky, she is right to
find the book steeped in anti-Christian and pro-Muslim bias.
As Tracy Idell Hamilton reported previously in New
Times, the textbook defines religious persecution by talking about
Christian persecution of other religions, and omitting the fact that
Christians themselves have often been persecuted. Beyond that, the text
devotes more than 53 pages to Islam, but nothing comparable to
Christianity (or Judaism, for that matter).
School officials explain the imbalance by saying
that "Across the Centuries" is a seventh-grade book, and state education
guidelines expect sixth graders to study early Christian history. This
"seventh grade is Islam's turn" defense only makes sense if students read
the New Testament in sixth grade and the Koran in seventh grade. Because
they do neither of those things, "Across the Centuries" must be considered
on its own.
The book has a very high opinion of itself (mugging
for the cameras with questions like "what makes this textbook so much more
interesting than others you've used?"), but manages to survey world
history from B.C. to A.D. without reference to the pivotal event implied
by that change in calendars.
Since "B.C." means "before Christ" and "A.D." is
Latin for "year of our Lord," an explanation of why we changed the way we
reckon time would be in order.
No such luck. Mohammed is introduced on page 58 and
gets six pages. Meanwhile, in defiance of how history actually happened,
Jesus makes a cameo appearance more than two hundred pages later. Blink
and you might miss him, however. When Jesus finally shows up, it is only
as a passing reference in a sentence that pays more attention to Peter:
"Since the time of Jesus' disciple Peter in A.D. 64, the city of Rome had
been the center of the Christian faith." True, but not enough.
The absence of Jesus in a textbook whose editors
blush when pondering Mohammed's "courage," "compassion," and "strong
character" (p. 65) affects even secondary characters like the angel
Gabriel. The book says Gabriel appeared to Mohammed without noting that
Christians believe the selfsame Gabriel appeared to the mother of Jesus
some six hundred years before that.
Who can blame Shroder for decrying such bias? Let's
consign "Across the Centuries" to the ranks of books Above the Trash Can,
Around the Dumpster, and In the Recycling Bin.
Also by Patrick O'Hannigan Yes,
this will be on the test
Back to News Index