An American Editor

October 29, 2012

Fact or Fiction? School Textbooks

Filed under: Breaking News,Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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In past articles, I have worried about the future of the editing profession. I have looked at the state of American education and worried that future editors will be unable to distinguish a noun from a verb. I have looked at the tests submitted by editorial job applicants and worried about what they think is quality editing. I have conversed with younger colleagues about various aspects of the business of editing and worried about their knowledge of and approach to that business. I have reviewed fee expectations of job applicants and worried if I share the same universe.

Then along comes an article in The Economist and I am confronted with what I never quite thought about in regards to education: separating fact from fiction in school textbooks. Usually I would just post a short Article Worth Reading note about this particular article, but I think The Economist article, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, is must-reading for everyone.

I am aware of the textbook controversies here in the United States. Texas fundamentalists want Darwin and Jefferson purged; bigots want the Civil Rights movement’s history turned into a footnote; and the list goes on, including book banning and hiding one’s head in the sand when it comes to sex education. (I am fascinated by America’s puritanical streak when it comes to sex but not to violence. Having a nude scene in a movie — or even an allusion to sex — warrants a R rating, whereas graphically displayed mass murder gets a PG-13 rating. Blood and gore is OK, killing is OK, but not nudity or sex.) And because I am aware of the controversies in America, I just assumed that the same happens around the globe. A bad assumption as it turns out.

America has its faults, but growing up I was exposed to a multiplicity of ideas. Sometimes the exposure was in school, but more often it was a result of my weekly trips to the public library and my reading of newspapers and magazines, each coming from a different perspective. I wasn’t exposed to just one idea on a subject but to many ideas. In the Internet Age, I assumed such exposure was even greater for the young of today, but that clearly is not true.

The Economist article notes, for example, that in Egypt, 80% of the population read or have read only the Koran and school textbooks — not any other book (or so few other books in their lifetimes that it is tantamount to none). What that means is that unless school textbooks give a balanced and factual view of the world and history, students will be unable to separate fact from fiction. Belief in a bible is just that — belief. Bibles are neither fact nor fiction, as their role is (or should be) moral guidance. Yet many countries and many population subsets around the globe want to turn bibles into fact. How much more narrow and limited a perspective of the world and universe can one get than the biblical perspective? The importance of well-written, factually accurate school textbooks increases manyfold when most of a population is not exposed to other thought influencers.

Think about who writes and who edits school textbooks in Egypt. What is their background? How can they question whether something is fact or fiction when their own educational background was limited? What effect does this educational limitation have on university education in Egypt? And how do/can/will Egyptian students compete in what is increasingly a worldwide marketplace for jobs?

The article further discusses the role governments play in the creation of textbooks and how some governments view the role of education as a way of shoring up the present political system, not as a way of expanding knowledge. Whether something is fact or fiction matters not as long as it shores up the current political system.

With that perspective and with the influence that textbooks have on the education of a county’s populace, it becomes worrisome what the future will hold for authors and editors. Will, for example, holocaust denial become fact and the holocaust fiction? Will Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot suddenly become Nobel Peace Prize winners? Will authors write revisionist histories and will editors not know whether statements of “fact” are really queriable statements of “fiction”? Will “the world is flat” become “fact”?

Editors should be the barricade that prevents authorial flights of fiction being imposed on readers as fact. Editors are supposed to be educated well enough to question authorial “facts” that are contrary to the commonly held understanding of what is a fact. But if editors are taught that the world is flat and never exposed to the idea that the world is “round” and that the round view is the dominant view, how will the editor know to question the author? How will a reader know that the author’s statement of flatness is contrary to accepted knowledge? Isn’t this the underlying debate in the United States as regards the replacing of evolution with antievolution theories in school textbooks?

Imagine a world built solely on the bible as its history, a world created in six 24-hour days and that is only 8,000 years old. How would that world differ from the world we live in? Would our ability to separate fact from fiction be so impaired that our lifestyle would be more similar to that of ancient Rome than of modern New York? What types of books would we be reading, or able to read? Or would there even be books as opposed to just bibles?

It has been said that the key to economic and social growth is quality education. What is not discussed is what constitutes “quality education.” It is clear that some people believe that the education of 3,000 years ago is sufficient, whereas others believe that as broad a knowledge experience as possible is what education should be.

After reading “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” I worry that in our current world of outsourcing and offshoring, future generations will suffer a loss of knowledge because those hired to be the barricade between the author and the reader, to query fact and fiction, will be unable to fulfill that function as a result of narrowed education and limited access to those things that broaden knowledge. When someone tells me that “all I need to know is in the bible,” I shudder. Such a view, when translated to the school-education children receive, threatens world progress because it means that children will not have a sufficiently broad knowledge base to question whether something is fact or fiction.

The time has come to discuss just what the role of textbooks in education should be, as well as what constitutes quality education. Our future depends on it.

[The following was added on November 2, 2012.]

The following movie trailer for a documentary, The Revisionaries, about textbooks in America illustrates the problem discussed in the above article:

This video is a more in-depth view about the leader of the Texas movement to the back. Unfortunately, I could not find a version that didn’t have the video uploader’s sarcastic comments included. I suggest ignoring the editorial commentary and just watching the news:

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