October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

The complaint that textbooks often make for dull reading is not new, though only in recent years have critics of American education sensed an almost willful attempt to “dumb down” U.S. schoolbooks. In their zeal to avoid offending vociferous pressure groups, the argument goes, textbook publishers have found it the better part of valor to soft-pedal—or ignore altogether—such controversial subjects as sex, birth control, nuclear war and the theory of evolution. If so, the trend toward caution may have been curbed. Two weeks ago the California State Board of Education rejected all 29 junior high school science texts newly submitted by eight publishers for its approval, charging that the books skated past important topics. “This sends the strong message to publishers,” says Bill Honig, 48, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, “that we are serious about the movement toward quality education.” So it does: California accounts for no less than 11 percent of the nation’s $1.3 billion textbook market.

Honig, who led the fight to reject the textbooks, is a widely recognized advocate of a return to basics in education. A San Franciscan and father of four, he holds a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley but quit practicing law in 1969 to teach in inner-city schools as a member of the federally funded Teachers Corps. He was elected the state’s top educator in 1982. On the occasion of the publication of his book, Last Chance for Our Children (Addison-Wesley, $12.95), Honig talked with San Francisco bureau chief Nancy Faber about the current textbook furor.

What’s behind California’s rejection of the science textbooks?

First, it’s not an evolution versus creation fight, as it’s been billed. It is much broader than that. Whether it’s science or literature, history or reading, the question here is are we going to establish criteria for quality textbooks and then stick to our guns? Our Board of Education is conservative and many members are religious. So it doesn’t mean that to talk about evolution implies you don’t believe in God. Those involved voted unanimously to stay with our criteria and reject books not meeting our standards.

What was wrong with the books?

Simply put, they were watered down. In 1973, when President Reagan was governor of California, his State Board of Education decided that evolution should be taught as a science. So it’s not a question of do you teach it, but how well you teach it. Modern biology cannot be taught without teaching evolution, yet these books either left out the very word evolution or they so narrowed the presentation that the children just couldn’t understand what the theory of evolution was all about.

Can you cite examples?

In one 536-page life sciences text, the index lists only six pages on evolution. There were four pages on just the earthworm. Some books didn’t mention the word evolution at all but used euphemisms, such as “changes over time.” In others evolution was treated entirely separately from biology.

Was this to avoid of fending the creationists?

In this case, yes, but it is part of a much larger problem. Textbook publishing is a commercial enterprise and books are written for the nation, not a district. They respond to the marketplace. It’s perfectly understandable that, if someone is going to object, and they’ll lose a sale because of it, they will write the books differently. They will keep diluting everything to avoid objections if they think that will make it easier for them to sell books.

Are textbook publishers that sensitive to public pressures?

Yes. I know of several instances. A group objected to the language in an anthology that included Romeo and Juliet; they thought it was too graphic, so words were taken out. In The Diary of Anne Frank, there were complaints that some words were too explicit; then that was either watered down in the anthology or taken off the shelves. Some other groups objected to history books where the Soviet Union was presented as a totalitarian country that has people in gulags and where three million people were killed by Lenin and Stalin. So it’s not just the creationists or people on the right; it’s all kinds of pressure groups, sometimes even a single determined individual or two. If you complain, you’ll get yours.

Were there other omissions, such as discussions of sex and ethics?

We insist that human reproduction be talked about and that it be presented in the broader context of social responsibilities and family values. It is not enough just to teach the physiological aspects of sex, as it is done now. Air and water pollution were other ethical considerations that were not discussed. Horace Mann wrote a century ago, “When the teacher fails to meet the intellectual wants of a child, it is a question of asking for bread and receiving a stone, but when he fails to meet the child’s moral wants, it is giving a serpent.”

Will other states join California in demanding better textbooks?

With 4.2 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade, we are the largest market for textbooks. We have power. But this is a cooperative effort. We’ve had tremendous support from educators. They’ve called from other states to say, “Great. You really stuck to your guns.” Top school officials nationwide are united in their demand for better quality textbooks. The more we stand together for quality as a whole, the better books we’ll get.

When did these problems with textbooks begin?

It started in the ’70s. Diluted stories and bland language in textbooks today came about partly in response to the philosophy of giving kids what they want. Some educators demanded something called readability standards, which was a fancy phrase for “We want easy prose our students can understand.” Publishers responded, but what happened was that texts using easier words were actually harder to grasp because there were no adjectives and no sentence structure. And they were dull.

Will the publishers respond now to the new demands of educators?

It will take them a while, but I think they will. In fact, six of the publishers that we turned down on the junior high science text have agreed to make revisions. We have given them notice of our criteria. Test scores are starting to go back up, the core curriculum is being put back into place so you don’t have kids taking gourmet cooking or detective fiction or whale watching instead of English, American history and math. We are raising demands for homework too.

Are the schools overly dependent on textbooks?

Research shows that 80 to 90 percent of the curriculum comes to students through their textbooks. Teachers don’t have the time or energy to do a lot of work with supplemental materials. So if you have a weak text, you have a weak curriculum.

What kind of books do you want to see in the classrooms?

Engaging and challenging books. Good stories. It turns out that children can read at a lot higher level if you give them interesting stories. And we also want books that tell our children about our moral and ethical standards. They should be taught the best wisdom of our civilization. We court disaster as a democracy if we allow less.

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