California's Book Ban

A Golden State lawmaker pushes for ban on new Texas textbooks.

State Senator Leland Yee, a liberal San Francisco Democrat, wants to bar California from adopting any new material from curriculum changes in Texas, which he and other critics view as right-wing revisionism. Though much publicized, the charge fails to stand up, but some textbooks do need correction. Those would be California textbooks, and this is not a new problem.

“They're all horrors, and there is no reason for them.” State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said that in 1988 about California’s watered-down texts. Honig, a liberal San Francisco Democrat, duly invited scholar Diane Ravitch to revise California's history curriculum, which had been tasked to instill pride in accredited victim groups.

“Telling publishers that their books must instill pride only guarantees a phony version of feel-good history,” Ravitch wrote. “Publishers, as a result, bend over backward to be positive, whether writing about the genocidal reign of Mao Tse-tung (presumably to avoid offending his admirers) or the unequal treatment of women in Islamic societies (to avoid offending Muslims).”

Texts should be accurate, Ravitch wrote, “but to impose contemporary political requirements on how the events are portrayed only ensures that the history we teach our students is inaccurate and dishonest.”  In California, it certainly has been that.

The textbook An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600 showed Sikh founder Guru Nanak wearing a crown instead of a turban, and a beard that was trimmed instead of long, as alert Sikhs pointed out. At the time, the California Department of Education had no mechanism for ensuring that textbooks were “factually accurate.”  Little wonder that errors became commonplace.

“Studies have found hundreds of errors in California textbooks,” says the website of the Textbook Trust, a watchdog group. The mistakes include geography, such as the notion that California’s southern border is the Rio Grande. It isn’t, and that river ventures nowhere near the Golden State, whose textbooks also fail to get math right.

A second-grade math text used in 79 schools in California’s capital city of Sacramento contends that five times three equals five. The book, fully approved by the state, is part of a series published by MacMillan/McGraw-Hill and used through the sixth grade. In the nearby Folsom Cordova district teachers have students hunting for errors as part of a learning exercise. The eager fourth-grade students documented 90 errors in the math series, for which the district paid $1.9 million.

So the kids shape up as smarter than the publisher’s fact-checkers and anyone in what the Sacramento Bee calls the “labyrinthian process” of approving the books for the classroom. So do the teachers who are correcting the errors with red pen.  Many other state-approved California textbooks could be marked up.

Meanwhile, the “Texas Curriculum Massacre,” (Newsweek ) that so disturbed Sen. Yee and other liberals, is overblown. As David Upton, assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas, noted, this may not be the best curriculum, but “no one has pointed to a particular significant error of fact.” And contrary to accusations, Upton writes, “the curriculum is replete with specific references to Jefferson, religious freedom, the civil rights movement, and the achievements and struggles of women and minorities.”

These will never be enough to assuage critics on the left, argues Amity Shlaes, of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.  “Whatever lines it inserts about church, state, hip-hop or the Alamo,” writes Shlaes, “the board will not restore true balance. It will merely manage to make the curriculum a little less skewed to the left.” In a more general way, she adds, “the left also hijacked American culture” so the Texas social studies issue makes sense as a “small check on a larger problem.”

Yet another problem lurks in the background, the government education system itself, an unreformable collective farm of ignorance and mediocrity. This system encourages mass purchase of textbooks, with large states like Texas and California setting the pace. The books may be politically correct, and instill pride in Maoists and Muslims, but that is not the same as accurate. That is why Guru Nanak gets a crown instead of a turban, the Rio Grande gets misplaced, and five times three equals five. Call it the stupidity inherent in the system.