The shelves are groaning with political books these days, most of them full of sound and fury and possessing zero significance in the grand scheme of things. Examples include Ann Coulter's Treason, which manages to take one actual fact — Joe McCarthy did have a list of Communist sympathizers close to the seats of power — and inflates it into 292 pages of wild thrashing, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Living History, which manages to have no ideas at all through 352 pages. (Advantage: Coulter, though not by much.)

The one book of this genre you must read is The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (New York: Knopf, 2003), by historian Diane Ravitch. Textbooks are big business, and the states buy them in bulk, so getting a text approved by a large state is practically a license to print money. Unfortunately, the states have textbook-selection committees which, after many years of haranguing from both left and right, are disinclined to accept any reading material that exceeds the official standard for blandness.

If you've been following this issue at all, some of the criticisms leveled by the haranguers are well-known. From some conservative Christians, for instance, you might find complaints about biology texts that don't give equal time to anti-Darwinian arguments, and about the Harry Potter books, which not only dabble in sorcery and witchcraft, but focus on a member of a family which can be charitably described as dysfunctional. Most of the conservative Christians I know don't get exercised about the likes of Harry Potter — they seem to understand the term "fiction" — but then again, I don't know anyone on a textbook committee either.

The left, conversely, is less concerned with insulating children from occasions of sin than with preserving their self-esteem. Bigotry is inherent in Western civilization, and therefore it is imperative that all cultures — all cultures not descended from dead white European males, anyway — be given the emphasis and respect they deserve, and anything even slightly resembling a stereotype must be eliminated. In this politically-correct dream-world, June Cleaver would drive a backhoe, and Ernie Bilko, drummed out of the service because, well, the Army does nasty things like kill people, would take up needlepoint.

Is there any cure for these multiple inanities? Diane Ravitch sees one, but it would require some serious decentralization: the states, she said, should give up their control over the textbook-acquisition process, letting the individual school districts make their own decisions as to what is and what is not an acceptable text. With the states out of the picture, there will be a demand for independent reviews of textbooks, and where there is a demand, there inevitably will be a supply. I'm not sure how well teachers will deal with the brave new world of open textbook selection: for the most part, they've been told to tailor their teaching to state testing — but that's another problem entirely.

The Vent

#353
16 August 2003

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