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Textbook Wars Flare Again

Fights over textbooks in this country have a long history. The usual basis for them is that young people are not mature enough to evaluate controversial material. As a result, it's better to err on the side of indoctrination than on the side of education.

The latest example is on display in Texas, where 70 percent of the state's school districts used textbooks last year that contained material deemed anti-American ("Texas School Lessons Spark Fight Over Patriotism," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 20). The issue became the subject of a lawsuit claiming that some lessons "are clearly inappropriate and reveal a progressive and socialist mentality."

As I wrote before about Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, it's extremely difficult to find material that will pass muster with all stakeholders in public schools ("Textbook Selection," Aug. 14). Rather than run the risk of offending one group or another, most school districts wind up choosing textbooks that are bland. Whether this approach constitutes education is another issue entirely. But it certainly is safe.

Private and religious schools have far more latitude in deciding which books to use because parents have chosen to enroll their students there, knowing beforehand the philosophy of the respective schools. But public schools, which are funded by tax dollars, have no such luxury. As a result, I wouldn't want to serve on a committee that was entrusted with the task of selecting textbooks. I say that because ideology trumps everything else.

I remember quite vividly the controversy over the use of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The entire fight came down to the use of the "N" word when Mark Twain was referring to Jim. Despite the literary merits of the classic, many parents were outraged. As a result, some teachers in the English Department refused to teach the book.

I think that a skilled teacher can present both sides of any controversy. This strategy may not placate extremists, but it offers the most defensible policy if the goal is education.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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