Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Including vs. Excluding

Mark Hyman takes on a topic near and dear to my heart, school textbooks and the many guidelines and regulations that are placed on them before they can be deemed “acceptable” by state and districts across the country.

In a previous life, I worked for a couple of educational publishers that created ancillary and test preparation materials that were often subject to the same sorts of constraints.

And Hyman is right: there are a huge number of guidelines about what can and can’t be said, shown, or described in today’s educational materials. The problem with his argument is that he only applies his argument to one particular subset of these guidelines.

Predictably, Hyman bemoans what he terms the “politically correct” strictures placed on textbooks that end up with authors bending over backwards to avoid anything that could remotely be thought of as sexist, racist, etc., along with efforts to include representative characters from nearly every imaginable demographic group, even if the result is unrealistic.

Fair enough. As someone who had to rewrite sentences to say things like “Franklin Roosevelt lived with polio” rather than “Franklin Roosevelt suffered from polio,” be sure to make names in sample test questions reflect every possible ethnic derivation under the sun, and change historical dates from “B.C.” to “B.C.E.” (Before the Common Era), I’m far more familiar with the intricacies of non-offensive educational writing than Hyman is. And while the changes are often important and nearly always well-intentioned, they can seem pretty dopey.

But political correctness is actually a much more recent and narrower issue than its corollary: religious correctness. Hyman cites Diane Ravitch’s book “
The Language Police” approvingly to support his case, but he ignores much of what she says.

Ravitch points out what any of us in the educational publishing world know all too well: the Religious Right (a.k.a. “Christianists”) have been a major force when it comes to editing textbook content for far longer than politically correct liberals.

Just as an example, textbooks in Texas have had to go through a state board of review that was virtually run by an infamous family that insisted that any textbook not violate any of their personally held conservative religious beliefs.

The results in Texas and elsewhere are every bit as silly as the politically correct examples Hyman gives. One company I worked for had a product for kindergarten age children that involved a cute dolphin character who helped children understand, voice, and deal productively with their emotions.

Sounds like a charming and helpful product, yes? And it was. But not according to some adoption committees run by fundamentalist Christians, who lambasted it for featuring talking animals (witchcraft!) and for using such benign techniques as visualization to help kids deal with their feelings (New Age-ism!).

And this is hardly an isolated incident. Educational publishers around the country have had to be careful about including talking animals in certain books (bye-bye, Aesop). Others have had to purge any reference to witches, spells, or magic (bye-bye Grimm Brothers).

Relaxation techniques? Positive visualization? For most of us, these are proven tools for helping students (and others) control their temper and concentrate on their work. But for many Christianists, these are evidence of Eastern spirituality infiltrating our educational system.

And do we even need to mention textbooks dealing with issues such as sex education and evolution? Hyman claims political correctness distorts history. But the changes often demanded of educational texts in the areas of human reproduction and evolution often promote out-and-out falsehoods.

Hyman bemoans the fact that the phrase “Founding Fathers” might have to be cut from textbooks because of its supposed implicit sexism. But even if it were, no textbook would simply say that the Constitution simply materialized fully formed, or even suggest that this was a reasonable theory for how the document came to be. Yet that’s exactly the sort of change demanded by some fundamentalist groups when it comes to scientific texts describing how humans came to be.

Even stories that have tangential references to dinosaurs or fossils must be massaged carefully or left out altogether because of a vocal minority who think these topics tacitly endorse evolution.

And this leads to a broader observation about this topic. At first blush, one can simply say that both ends of the political spectrum have tried (and often succeeded) to influence the ways in which our children are taught, often at the expense of common sense.

But there is a qualitative difference in the types of distortions and omissions championed by either side. For the most part, the politically correct strictures that Hyman complains about are distortions on the side of inclusiveness. They ask us to include some often strange and euphemistic wording to talk about issues like physical disabilities, but the motive is to avoid stigmatizing kids who suff . . . oops . . . “live with” these limitations. Yes, gender and racial demographics in textbooks are often idealized, but again the idea is to counteract decades (and even centuries) of stereotypes and omissions. And yes, sometimes sensitivity to what might conceivably offend or stigmatize a student gets taken to ridiculous extremes (not wanting to use stories focusing on bucolic mountain settings for fear of alienating city kids).

In all of these cases, however, the silliness is at least committed in the service of inclusiveness. On the other hand, the sorts of changes demanded by right-wing fundamentalists often involve not simply benign distortions, but the omission of important facts. From prohibiting entire genres of stories to omitting basic health information about issues like contraception to distorting the facts to deny the scientific consensus on topics such as evolution and global warming, right-wing textbook editing is largely about excluding, not including.

Hyman hints that a solution would be to have teachers, not statewide textbook committees, choose what books they want to use. Amen to that! I just hope Hyman realizes that much of his political fellow travelers won’t be happy with such a solution, given that it might allow teachers to educate their children about the true age of the Earth, the benefits of relaxation, and other such dastardly topics.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 5.36


At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for another enlightening Counterpoint Ted.
I could never participate in any form of organized religion after having been exposed to many of them in my life and travels in this world.
I honestly believe that religious fundamentalists of all stripes are the cause of most if not all of the worlds problems, especially when they allow politics and politicians to infiltrate them.
I think the following Voltaire quote of unknown (at least to me) origin rings true and I'm paraphrasing here:
"People will never be truly free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest".
Thanks Ted, and keep bustin' Hyman.
Mike B. in SC

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I might extend that idea to say that it isn't necessarily religion per se, but the free use of irrational thinking.

Religion, clan identification, jingoism, etc., all offer excuses for emotional reasoning (an oxymoron). In the case of clan identification, most people outside the clan groups can readily see the distortion caused by this mode of ordering one's life.

However, in the case of religion, one appeals to an "ultimate power" which broaches no counter-arguments, even rationale ones.

We can see this same nonsense with the "hate America", "hate the troops" and the general angry-citizen model. It's used to justify torture and abrogating our Constitution.

The loss of rationale thinking is pretty ugly and we live in ugly times, I think


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