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A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco.

When Madeline Kunin became Deputy Secretary of Education a few months ago, she promised (like others before her) "to set high standards of excellence" for the public schools. Of course, it will take time and money--plus a rare combination of vision and pragmatism-to finally bring the nation's public schools out of the current level of crime,infested, gun-plagued, poverty-ridden squalor created by years of neglect. There is one necessary first step, however, that can be taken easily, immediately, and at no cost to taxpayers: schools should refuse to purchase textbooks until their irresponsible publishers improve their generally wretched quality.

Trouble stags at the elementary level, where books are thrown together by writers who not only cannot write but who are constricted by various guidelines-and, worse, by readability lists. These lists are drawn up by experts who have concluded that children must never be exposed to difficult words. They must never be challenged to stretch their minds. They must never, under any circumstances, be forced to consult a dictionary. They must never experience the magic of words which illuminate, create, re,create, and explore the boundless dimensions of the imagination. The result? Leaden, clunky prose, without resonance, guaranteed to turn children off reading.

As for secondary-school texts, nobody knows more about how dreadful they are than William J. Bennetta. Bennetta, a California science writer and president of the California Textbook League, edits and writes for a quarterly review of secondary-school science and history texts. Here are typical headings from The Textbook Letter (P.O. Box 51, Sausalito, CA 94966):

* Fundamentally Flawed and Entirely Obsolete

The Terrible Texts

* A Book So Poorly Done It Should Be Withdrawn

* A Shoddy, Fatuous Book That Mangles Its Subject

* A Poor Book: Fragmented, Erratic, Incomprehensible

* Ignorance and Superstition in a Gaudy, Glitzy Package

* An Inane Book That Is Worse Than Worthless

* What a Display of Ignorance!

* I Weep for the Children!

Get the picture? The deplorable fact is that, for every minimally acceptable text, Merrill and Prentice-Hall and Heath and Macmillan and the rest put out (to their shame) 10 that are not.

How did this happen? There are three main reasons: the ways books are put together; the selection process, which practically guarantees that the costliest and most meretricious products will be chosen; and publishers' craven pandering to censors, especially those in the Bible Belt states where pickings are most profitable.

In his lectures, Bennetta describes the usual modus operandi. An editor signs up a well,known authority for a book, gives him or her a hefty advance, and turns the writing over to in-house editors who know nothing of the subject and cannot write. Once the writing -clumsy and inaccurate-is completed, the package is sweetened with eye-catching graphics and teacher,aid gimmicks. Meanwhile, the hapless author, having spent the advance, can do nothing about the atrocity which bears his or her name.

It's the irrelevant fripperies which sell the books (at exorbitant prices), as Harriet Bernstein-Tyson makes depressingly clear in her lucid, pithy A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco (Council for Basic Education, 725 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005). Publishers compete for this extremely lucrative market with flashiness and freebies-not substance.

Publishing is a business. The idea is to make money. Textbook publishers care no more about purveying intellectual nourishment to young people than networks care about purveying spiritual nourishment or fast-food franchises physical nourishment. Two quotes from Bernstein-Tyson's book makes this point crystal clear. According to one publishing executive: "If a customer wants a pink stretch Cadillac, I may think it's wacky and wasteful, but I would be a fool to produce a fuel-efficient compact if nobody is going to buy it." Even worse, there's this admission from a curriculum supervisor: "The books are all alike anyway, so we don't even bother to read them. We go for the publisher who gives us the biggest freebie package."

Bernstein-Tyson summarized the disaster in a letter to Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, the only organization dedicated to the sorely needed task of combatting "scientific creationism" and improving science education:

The typical selection process is superficial and teachers who serve on selection committees have little time to examine the books .... [Selections are made] on the basis of criteria that have little to do with quality. In order of importance, the REAL criteria are: the charm of the salesmen; the cover; the graphics; the "extras"; the publication date; convenience for the teacher; the "free" materials thrown into the deal...

Then there are all the censors. A1, though the heaviest pressure comes from Christian fundamentalists, they are by no means the only culprits. There's the political-correctness silliness and the hypersensitivity of militant feminists and persons who object to Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice because they could wound the feelings of blacks and Jews, respectively. But the major thrust comes from the Bible Belt, where, as noted previously, the profits are enormous. These self-appointed judges of what other people's children should and should not be allowed to read would pretty much gut the curriculum. A bad situation is steadily worsening as the ineffably Reverend Pat Robertson's myrmidons sneakily get themselves elected to school boards (3,000 in the last couple of years). It's easy to do, voter turnout for such elections being abysmally low.

Publishers are well aware of the fact that, although teachers don't read the books, fundamentalists do. They assiduously sniff out every whiff of what they construe as "secular humanism." This is a wholly suppositious construct which their paranoid imaginations have built up into an enormous conspiracy by the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Humanist Association, and everyone else with whom they disagree. It is headed by Satan himself!

Because evolution heads their menace list, the most serious academic damage has been to biology teaching. To the fearful fundamentalists, evolution is not only a process that could not possibly have happened in a world which God created 6,000 years ago in six 24-hour days, as "scientific creationism" has it; evolution is the very core of the secular-humanist conspiracy. It must not be taught or even mentioned. Thus, one biology text discusses dinosaurs as follows: "Some scientists believe that very large animals may have existed a long time ago."

Bernstein-Tyson's indispensable book concludes with an appendix entitled "An Annotated List of Typical Policies and Procedures That Drive Up the Cost of Textbooks While Diminishing Their Value to Students." She lists 11, all practiced in nearly every school district in the nation.

Merely improving their books will not, obviously, resolve the interlocking and desperate hurdles that confront millions of America's school children. But demanding that publishers replace their brummagem wares with books which embody Kunin's "high standards of excellence" would be a promising-and cost-free-way to begin.

Betty McCollister is a freelance writer residing in Iowa City, Iowa. A former member of the board of directors of the American Humanist Association, she has six children and 15 grandchildren and is particularly interested in evolution, church, state separation, and women's issues.
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Author:McCollister, Betty
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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