A Page Out of the History-Text Debate

Cultural diversity and state standards influence new crop of books to be chosen by key states

History textbooks are high on many states' lists of things to buy within the next two years.

But how they shop and what they choose will be influenced by the same delicate and potentially explosive issues that once sparked the debate over proposed National Standards for United States History: which historical figures and whose perspectives will be included.

In 1994, the US Senate rejected the national standards, which were derided for failing to mention Paul Revere's ride, the Wright Brothers, or Thomas Edison, while including a 14th-century African king, Mansa Musa, and Indian chief Speckled Snake.

The clash over history textbooks is set to pick up where that fight over standards and multiculturalism left off, some experts say. It is likely to be complicated by the need for books to meet new state education standards being set in 48 states.

Beginning this year and into 1999, some 17 states - including trend-setters California, Florida, and Texas - will "adopt" new social studies/history textbooks, which school districts then purchase with state funds.

Just 20 states adopt texts; the other 30 are considered "open," allowing districts to choose their own books. But because so many big states are involved in the adoption process, they influence publishers and tend to set the mold for all texts.

"In the next year we are going to see the arrival of a whole new generation of textbooks," says Gilbert Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council, an independent textbook reviewer.

"We are going to find out which books succeed in California and Texas and will go on to dominate the national market.... And we will find out the degree and the manner in which multiculturalism" is included.

Multiculturalism has surfaced in social studies textbooks over the last 10 years, Sewall says. He and other historians say it appears in texts as a stress on group identities, race, class, and gender, emphasizing the history of ordinary people rather than elites. It can include different ideas about America's past, often highlighting the nation's shortfalls and unfinished business, they say.

New books under wraps

So far, not much is known about the new textbooks. Writers and editors of yet-to-be-unveiled books are sworn to secrecy.

"We're just now starting to see the first percolations of controversy around history textbooks, after seven years of calm," says Mr. Sewall. Legislators, educators, and interest groups are scrutinizing a few elementary and secondary texts that entered the adoption process this year. In Texas, for example, one group - Education Texas-Style - called that state's selection process for Grades 1 to 6 a "textbook shootout."

Multiculturalism was one of the central issues in that debate. In an unusual move, Harcourt Brace School Publishers sued the Dallas School District after the board selected several texts (including Harcourt Brace's) to ensure more multicultural focus. The publisher dropped the suit (and maintained its healthy market share) when the district rescinded its decision and agreed to abide by its textbook committee's recommendation to adopt books by Harcourt Brace and just one other publisher.

"In Texas, some people said our textbooks weren't multicultural enough and others said they were too multicultural," says Anthony Lucki, president of Harcourt Brace. "Social studies is ripe for pressure from a multitude of special interest groups. It's the most difficult area to publish in, no question about it."

After a vigorous debate seven years ago, California adopted just one history textbook series, published by Houghton Mifflin of Boston. Other publishers are eager to challenge that lucrative monopoly next year, hoping to get a share of the nation's largest social-studies textbook market, worth an estimated $75 million.

It will not be easy. The industry must meet both new state history standards - soon to be set by a politically appointed committee - and multicultural concerns. Representatives of California's native American community, for example, say they will watch how any textbook depicts Father Serra, a Roman Catholic founder of the California missions who mistreated Indians in the 1800s.

Political pressure on textbook content dates back to the 1960s, if not earlier, says Robert Lerner, co-author of the 1995 book "Molding the Good Citizen: The Politics of High School History Texts," a review of US history texts from the 1940s to the '80s.

"Not only are there facts to know, but a battle for whose interpretation will prevail," he says. Analysis of history texts since the '60s shows a rising proportion of women and minorities replacing traditional figures in Western civilization, Mr. Lerner says. "If anything this trend is even more pronounced today."

Gary Nash, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, does not dispute the trend but disagrees that it is at the expense of a genuine understanding of the nation's history, or that there is a slant against traditional figures.

"History is our national autobiography," says Professor Nash, author of the Houghton Mifflin social studies text used in California. "If you decide this collective autobiography in the history books is now going to include women, the voices of black Americans, Indians, and plain old working class stiffs, well, some will lament that, some will applaud."

Nash, who co-wrote and revised the national history standards, agrees that more political foment will surround the next textbook debate, largely because of attention drawn to the national standards.

Already scrutiny

Conservative scholars are scrutinizing the first new textbooks - worried that themes from the Nash standards may have percolated into them.

One book accused of multicultural bias is "United States History: In the Course of Human Events," published by West Education Publishing Co. of Agoura, Calif.

In a review, John Fonte of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington wrote: "It can hardly be accidental that [the book] examines Amerindian tribes, the Great Serpent Mound, African empires, and Ibo sculpture, but never mentions Magna Carta, the British common law or the doctrine of natural rights - key elements of Western civilization's contribution to America."

The book's co-author says Mr. Fonte's criticisms distort the book - and get the facts wrong. Matthew Downey, professor of history at the University of Colorado at Greeley, says it sounds as if Fonte "did not read the book very carefully, but was relying on the index." The book does specifically mention "English common law," he says. It elaborates on "natural rights" that influenced the Declaration of Independence and, while the Magna Carta is not explicitly mentioned, English rule of law and individuals rights are.

This is just a hint of things to come, experts note. Sewall says the new texts "will generate a lot of controversy - a lot of praise and a lot of the reverse."

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