Textbooks and Texas

by Greg Mayer

Paul Waldman, writing about the perennial attempts to keep science out of Texas schools, perceptively asks, “What about the textbook companies?”

…how can the people who work at a publisher in good conscience agree to write a biology textbook that treats evolution as a wild, unsupported idea? What if the Texas Board of Education demanded that their books discuss the “controversy” about whether the Earth travels around the sun or vice-versa, or the “controversy” about whether earthquakes happen because the turtle on whose back the world sits is scratching an itch, or the “controversy” about whether stars are actually faeries winking at us from up in the sky?

…surely there’s some level of deception aimed at children that the textbook publishers wouldn’t be able to live with themselves for propagating. I wonder where it is.

It’s an excellent question. I wonder where it is, too.

h/t Andrew Sullivan



  1. Northcoastin
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Years ago, a William & Mary historian found in her daughter’s fourth grade history text a reference to large numbers of African-American troops serving under Stonewall Jackson. Something is up in the textbook trade, and it ain’t good.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Up until a few years ago, I’d always thought that was true. I grew up in Alabama.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted October 4, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Here’s the link. Note that the author is not an actual historian.

      And here is the link to the publisher. It looks to me that they are not a mainstream textbook publisher, but instead is a publisher of Virginia whitewash.

      Shame on the state of Virginia for buying this claptrap!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 5, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      a reference to large numbers of African-American troops serving under Stonewall Jackson.

      Sorry, but can you explain the significance of that for non-Americans.
      Stonewall Jackson was a general in one of the sides in the US Civil War (“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist….” ; that one?), but without Wikipediaing, I wouldn’t know which side. And I know that part of the reason for the war was about slavery (and economics).
      Last night I recalled Cromwell’s dictum of “Kill them all and let God sort them out” ; but although the guy I was talking to saw the relevance to modern Ireland, I wouldn’t necessarily expect an Armenian to see the relevance.

  2. Richard Olson
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Follow the money.

  3. Richard Olson
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink


  4. Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I guess book publishers can be as misguided about evolution as anyone…


  5. eric
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    North’s comment notwithstanding, I think in most cases the publishers don’t just make ad hoc changes to the text; they contact the text’s author(s) and try and work with them to make any changes. IIRC, a few years ago Ken Miller publicly released one of these exchanges (creationist letter to publisher, publisher letter to him, his letter back to publisher).

    • eric
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      In any event, I’m hoping the ‘textbook wars’ is one problem that modern technology will solve in a decade (or less). Shifting to an all-electronic format will make it cost-effective for publisher to produce multiple versions of texbooks, including high quality, science-rich ones for districts who want them and dumbed-down versions for districts who don’t.

      Now, I really don’t like the idea of dumbed-down versions, but it will be a step in the right direction when Texas no longer holds the rest of the country hostage in terms of textbook content.

      • Posted October 4, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        On the other hand, will these textbooks be always-on, have lots of battery life, etc. (Nevermind they also support the company plans to do self-destruction, etc. elsewhere.)? I hope one doesn’t trade one unfortunate mess for another.

  6. Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    One of my delightful teachers when I was 7 or 8 led the class in ridicule against me when I pointed out that there were no corners on the earth because it was ball-shaped. Oh don’t be a silly-billy! We’d all fall off!

    To this day I’m not sure if she was expressing some overruling command that children were not to be taught real science, or whether she genuinely believed the rubbish she was spouting, I never learned. But at that point my hatred and contempt for the teaching profession began, and I have been in trouble with authority ever since.

    • eric
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Please tell me that was a parochial school. I don’t want to believe some public school teacher was using falling-off-the-earth arguments in the last several decades (or, um, centuries now that I think about it).

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      What a weird and terrible thing for a teacher to do.

    • Dave
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      Cripes, how old are you, anyway? 🙂

  7. Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Working in the industry, I can say with confidence that the authors (like the previously mentioned Ken Miller) are not edited to a heavy degree by the publishers.

    Of course, this does tend to be on a publisher-by-publisher basis and there’s no doubt that one of the smaller firms might try to gain a bunch of market share by inserting some creationist text.

    In Texas, school districts choose their books. I’ve served on the committee for biology books and, while we get some swag from the companies, we choose the best book (Miller’s). Some of the ones we were presented with were utter crap. But none had creationism in them. I looked for that specifically.

    Finally, when it comes to testing, I don’t know any science content specialist that would allow creationist material on a standardized assessment. Those all go through teacher committees too. And even in [a certain state known for creationism], every teacher on the committee was firmly in the real science camp and anti-creationism… even when it was brought up by the education department rep.

    It’s not as easy to get creationism into the curriculum as most people seem to think. That’s not to say we should stop fighting the crap though.

    • Larry Moran
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Thank-you for explaining how the system actually works in Texas. To the best of my knowledge no major publisher (+authors) has ever made any substantive changes to any biology textbook in Texas.

      To the best of my knowledge, no biology textbook has ever been removed from the list of approved textbooks in Texas in spite of the fact that they strongly promote evolution.

      The influnce of the Texas Board of Education on textbooks in the USA seems to be greatly exaggerated.

      Does anyone have any real evidence to the contrary?

      • Notagod
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        Everyone should probably just back off until there are public school creationist science books so that we can get our marching orders from Larry.

        Trouble is it’s a bit late to get the crap out once it is in there.

        • moarscienceplz
          Posted October 4, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          I think Larry Moran’s post is quite apt, and I find your response inappropriate and unfair.

          • Latverian Diplomat
            Posted October 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

            Given that Notagod provided a link to NCSE contradicting Larry’s comment, I thing it was in bounds and strident but understandable.

            Especially since the NCSE is on the front lines of exactly this issue and has probably more responsible than anyone else that the Texas school board has not done more damage.

            • Larry Moran
              Posted October 5, 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

              Read carefully what Josh says in the NCSE press release. I fully support the effort NCSE makes to rebute the stupidity of the Texas Board of Education at their hearings. This is good publicity.

              However, Jerry’s post criticized publishers for caving in to the Texas Board and I think its important to note that, with minor insignificant exceptions, they don’t.

              It’s eady to prove that I’m wrong. Just post an example. I’m told, by Genie Scott among others, that no science textbook has ever been rejected by the Texas Board and this includes Biology textbooks like the one by Miller and Levine (Pearson) that are full of evolution and no creationism.

              • Notagod
                Posted October 5, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

                Larry, the links to the devaluation of integrity by the textbook publishers are splattered all over this comment section. Its standard christian tactics. If the christian can’t get everything they want in one shot they’ll start with trivial changes and build on them over time, until the net result is worse than they had ever brayed for to begin with. As with almost all corporations in the United States, the textbook companies are most interested in manufacturing monetary fortunes any way they can do it.

                Here are some links for your consideration:
                The statement by Northcoastin with a reference provided by moarscienceplz.

                Although this isn’t what you are objecting to
                freethinkinfranklin provides a link to the flavor of what is happening.

                Latverian Diplomat provides a nice link explaining how it happens.

                Leigh provides a personally known instance of dumbed down books

                Sastra has a link to Mr. Feynman’s experience with the textbook publishers and the vetting of textbooks in Califoria.

                John provides a note of his personal experience with textbook publishers.

  8. freethinkinfranklin
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    have we all forgotten Dover PA and the going ons there? do you think it would go easer in Penn then it would in Texass??


  9. Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Although teachers and school boards have introduced creationist/ID texts into schools, and slapped some warning stickers into textbooks, can anyone think of any case where these nincompoops have actually caused nationally established textbooks to ‘dumbed down’? There was of course the earlier stretch where this happened after the Scopes trial, but were there other instances besides that?

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I can think of cases where students were fundamentally mislead (Freshwater cases comes to mind).

      But it’s almost at a teacher level. I can’t think of any case where there was even an entire school or school system that did something like this. And even in Dover, the teachers were against it.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        We hear over and over again how Texas, which is a huge text book market, has a disparate influence on the content of nationally distributed K-12 textbooks. So if a number of school boards there wanted to, they supposedly could get text book publishers to soften their content in ‘controversial’ areas like evolution or American history. So I was just wondering if there were instances where that oft-repeated worry has ever been realized.

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted October 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          Here’s a pretty thorough discussion. The influence on History is probably much worse than in science, because there’s more room for lots of little tweaks rather than one big issue that draws a lot of attention and defense.


          Key points:

          These days the Texas board is far less powerful than in its heyday. But in a way, it’s more influential than ever.

          That’s because the school board’s most important contribution has not been to make textbooks inaccurate. It’s been to help make them unreadable.

          All the bickering and pressuring over the years has caused publishers to shy away from using the kind of clear, lively language that might raise hackles in one corner or another. The more writers were constrained by confusing demands and conflicting requests, the more they produced unreadable mush. Texas, you may not be surprised to hear, has been particularly good at making things mushy.

          Texas has never managed to get evolution out of American science textbooks. It’s been far more successful in helping to make evolution—and history, and everything else—seem boring.

    • Leigh
      Posted October 4, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      I can give you one example. Pearson is a large publisher with several different divisions. Last year, at my school, the 7th grade text book was from Pearson Prentice Hall. That book had a chapter covering the chemical origin of life (obviously simplified – we’re talking 7th grade). This year the school changed to Pearson Interactive Science — no mention of chemical origin of life — just a discussion concluding that life comes from life — that there is no spontaneous generation. So I regard this year’s book as a dumbed-down versoin of last year’s text. I think someone who has reviewed lots of texts can probably provide many examples of dumbed-down books.

  10. Sastra
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Richard Feynman had a funny and frightening run in with a textbook commission back in the 60’s and wrote about it in his autobiographical Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I don’t know if anything has much changed.

    You can find a nice excerpt here.

    • Merilee
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      Feynman wonderful as always. Shocking story, but, unfortunately not surprising.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 4, 2013 at 1:57 am | Permalink

      Yeah. That was due to incompetence, rather than conspiracy, though.

  11. Posted October 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    They draw the line at where profits are maximized. No other line.

  12. Diane G.
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink


  13. marksolock
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  14. John
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    I have worked with textbook publishers at the secondary and college level for decades. I have never before seen anything like the foolishness going on now. I would never consider another textbook printed by any publisher that compromised on academic integrity or quality, whatever the motivation. The Texas paranoia about real science seems the most insidious because it seeks myth as a replacement for knowledge.

  15. Posted October 4, 2013 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on π's blog.

  16. Kyrayn
    Posted October 6, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Back in the days of Ross Perot, ALL Texas school books were carefully scrutinized. Literature books for the State of Texas could even be identified by the special “Star” symbol on the top right-hand corner of the cover of the book. Passages of Gulliver’s Travels and sections of Shakespeare were censored out without the students ever knowing the difference. A triple spacing on either side of a series of asterisks were used to indicate a censored passage (but only if the teacher let-on to the fact), usually students only found out later in university courses what they had been removed.

    Students would simply be reading a passage in the book. Even as they could be reading a particular thought…
    and then they were on to the next passage.

    In Texas, K-12 Science will become nothing more than another subject used to instill the “proper” Texas views and perspective in the future Limbaugh-listening FOXNews-watching Republican voting citizens of the state. And you have to remember, the state is willing to pay for the privilege to get what it wants.

    The best thing Texas K-12 Science Education has going for it these days is digital technology. More and more of the schools have shifted to iPads on which they load the student’s books to reduce costs, but that medium allows for broader expansion and use of materials outside of the textbook for teaching purposes…. much to the chagrin of the Texas State Board of Education. So there may still be hope for science in Texas.

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