The influence of the textbook


By Alex Swanson

We unthinkingly rely on educational texts to teach us our history; textbooks offer us our perception of reality. Students believe that George Washington was the first president, the Holocaust occurred and John F. Kennedy was assassinated because they read it in a book.

Inaccurate educational texts can therefore cause students to develop distorted, inaccurate understandings both of history and of current reality.

We know this, and we still, far too frequently, supply our schools with biased educational material. Most recently, critics have resisted the ignorant rhetoric deployed in a McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook photo caption. It read, “the Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”CH

To substitute “worker” for “slave” is not only inadequate in conveying the appropriate connotation, but also totally inaccurate considering that slaves received no pay.

Upon personally examining the text, Roni Dean-Burren, a school parent, rightly accused McGraw-Hill of erasure. CHThe company responded, issuing a statement saying they would rewrite the section.

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Our perception of history changes when only certain voices are featured and certain stories recounted. One of our most blatantly and frequently mythologized American histories is that of Christopher Columbus. This coming Monday, schools across the country will shut down as a sign of respect for the man who “discovered” America.

With little to no mention of the fact that Columbus captured Native Americans for the slave trade, we teach students about the man as if he were a moral hero. We continue teaching elementary schoolers to sing upbeat songs about the Niña, Pinta and Santa María.

We know it’s historically inaccurate, and that it’s culturally insensitive. We do it anyway to cultivate seeming patriotism.

To put forth the story of Columbus as emblematic of American patriotism is to associate “patriotism” — in an admittedly reductive fashion — with the European side of the conflict and to disassociate it from Native Americans. “Patriotism” is too often used as a euphemism in representing the actions of European Americans as faultless.

Much of the historically incorrect information taught in schools is justified by citing the need to perpetuate this sort of patriotism. We must therefore eradicate the notion that patriotism is connected to either shiny positivity or to the applauding of white, European Americans.

Perhaps we should instead regard patriotism as the ability to recognize the current and historical reality of the United States and to have the desire to improve upon it. We cannot erase the inconvenient, distasteful aspects of our national history.

As students, we also have a responsibility to question the information that is taught to us. Students need to be instructed, from the youngest age, to intelligently push back against what they learn in school.

Beyond our duties as students, as members of a society that has the ability to affect the educational system, we must demand appropriate educational resources and practices for our public schools. We cannot teach students about the reality of America with whitewashed educational texts and holidays. It’s simply not possible.

We must understand the influence that a good and a bad education can have on any given student and the effect that the good or bad education of a generation can have on our national character.

For an obvious starter, let’s stop taking off school for Columbus’ “holiday.”

Alex is a senior in LAS.?

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Even if a newer version of the textbook becomes available, many schools will be unable to afford a whole new set.” The article should have stated that McGraw-Hill is planning to offer two options for the printed textbooks at no cost to the schools. The Daily Illini regrets the error.