US watches as Texans give textbooks very close reading
Austin, Texas — It's hardly ideal summer reading: several thousand pages on algebra, vocational agriculture, English as a second language, and world history. But for Darryl Phipps, a Houston high school history teacher and football coach, it's required reading. He and 26 other members of the Texas State Textbook Committee are listening to the ideological sparring between liberals and conservatives at the committee's annual hearings this week.
The nature of the hearings invites strong controversy. One question, for instance, is whether there should be more pictures of women in algebra textbooks.
Issues being generated out of hearing rooms in the cement-block state education building here on the outskirts of the Texas capital affect all the nation's schools, say observers. Texas is the single largest textbook purchaser in the nation, and books edited to meet the state's guidelines often become the same textbooks used nationwide because they are the only editions available for purchase.
Thus the annual public hearings, which are part of the selection and revision of textbooks, become the platform for concerned citizens - attorneys, housewives , fundamentalist Christians, atheists, feminists, educators, publishers, and parents.
This year's hearings are attracting an unusual amount of public comment, for two reasons. After heated controversy last year, new rules were adopted that allow positive comments on books instead of just negative comments. That provision was sought by groups that wanted to counter conservatives' calls for changes in the texts.
Also attracting more intense participation is the subject of world history. Each school subject comes up for new book purchases only every six years. World history is due this year, bringing with it an avalanche of objections commensurate with its scope - everything from evolution to the importance of women in history to the portrayal of socialism, capitalism, and Christianity and more was brought up.
The committee, composed mostly of teachers as well as some school administrators, is charged with selecting textbooks the state will purchase in the 1984-85 school year. The vigorous public input generates national attention and a foot-high volume of comment - nearly as much reading as the textbooks up for consideration.
The diverse comments include:
* Feminists' scrutiny of the ratios of the number of illustrations of women to men; the use of masculine and feminine pronouns.
* Conservative criticisms of the portrayal of socialist systems, down to the very semantics that can cast subtle approval or disapproval on our own capitalist system; they criticize subtle promotion of the nuclear freeze by ''scare tactics'' such as printing pictures of the mushroom cloud of an atomic blast; and they are critical of textbooks portraying women disproportionately to their roles in history.
The diversity of public interest in shaping the thoughts of schoolchildren is apparent at the packed hearings that have attracted the national news media. For example:
''The world history textbooks are thoroughly polluted with Christianity,'' observed Madalyn Murray O'Hare, founder of American Atheists and plaintiff in the landmark US Supreme Court case that outlawed prayer in public schools.
On the other hand, Norma and Mel Gabler don't think there's enough Christianity in textbook offerings. The longtime participation of the conservative couple from Longview, Texas, in the public textbook review process has gained them a reputation as ''censors'' of liberal values.
State adoption of textbooks, as opposed to individual district procurement, is the process used in 22 other states. ''This system is frequently accused of censoring books,'' says Grace Grimes, deputy commissioner of education. But ''we're just selecting the top five'' books in each subject category from which the 1,000-plus school districts in the state choose texts.
''You never really know how much they (the committee) use public input'' in making decisions, because the committee devotes several months to its own review and discussion of the books before balloting takes place later this month, says J. Henry Perry, director of the textbook committee.
Publishers' representatives here privately admit that the public input can be a thorn in the industry's side, causing higher costs for delays in revisions in the final product.
But Charles E. Compton Jr., sales manager for Ginn & Co., says the process ''gives the public a forum to share viewpoints with the rest of the public. And 99 percent of things suggested are things to improve a textbook.''