BOSTON — When the dust settles on the debate over which books will become the new American History texts, schools may be left with an even bigger question: Will kids be able to lift them?
Publishers say the new books will be longer - much longer. High school history textbooks are 1,300 to1,400 pages, text reviewers say.
"They're getting so big, they're behemoths," says Gilbert Sewall, director of the independent American Textbook Council in New York. "We've lost a lot of literary quality as we've replaced the core text with pictures, white space, and all sorts of glossy graphics. Not so long ago there were passages of narrative designed to tell some sort of story of the past. But those seem to have disappeared," he says.
Few critics propose returning to the 1960s when textbooks were typically composed of pages of unrelieved gray type. But efforts to enhance the text with graphs, maps, and boxed information have been overdone, they contend.
William Bennetta, editor of the Textbook Letter, a newsletter review of textbooks, blames growing demand for instructional materials that will span the gulfs of academic ability in today's classrooms.
"There is incredible demand for watered-down, dumbed-down, fluffy textbooks that can be comprehended by the dullest student," he says.
Publishers adamantly disagree that textbooks have gotten dumber or less literary even though they are unquestionably longer, says Richard Blake, vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers in New York.
"As new curriculum frameworks across the country are getting tougher, local educators are expecting more," he says. "And that will be reflected in what goes into the books."
Publishers say their aim is to meet state standards and engage children, and that means including more material - more exercises, critical-thinking questions, sidebar articles and photographs - all alien to the textbook of 30 years ago.
But publishers also say texts are getting longer simply because of the need to be more inclusive and sensitive to minority groups.
Anthony Lucki, president, Harcourt Brace School Publishers of Orlando, Fla., notes, "We do our best to tell the truth and represent people fairly. We don't sit in an ivory tower and just make up history or give our interpretation. We listen to what people say."