The danger of politicizing textbooks
Last week we wrote on the editorial page about California’s decision to require teachers and textbooks to include some sort of positive message about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in their lessons. We opposed that decision -- not because we think schools shouldn’t teach about the contributions of people of all sexual orientations (they should!), but because we’re concerned about the continuing politicization of what goes on in California’s classrooms. In our view, politicians aren’t the best arbiters of what should be taught to children; teachers and educators are.
If you’re curious what can happen when this kind of thing gets out of hand, check out the story in Tuesday’s Times by our colleague Edmund Sanders. He notes that in disputed East Jerusalem, where Palestinians live under Israeli control, there are now two sets of school textbooks -– one written by the Palestinian Authority and the other a “revised” version put out by the Israelis. The Israelis (who fund the schools) insist that only their textbooks may be used, but Palestinians say the books have been censored and are quietly using their old versions, despite threats that they will be punished for doing so.
Israeli authorities say they simply want to be sure the textbooks are accurate, don’t incite violence and respect Israel’s legitimacy. They say they’ve taken out sections that glorify martyrdom and that describe Zionism as “racist.” Palestinians, meanwhile, complain that Israel has excised anything relating to Palestinian identity or nationalism, including images of Palestinian flags, a chapter on Palestinian history and a picture of the late Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
Israel and its Arab neighbors have been engaged in a culture war over textbooks for years, and it is not likely to end soon. California’s battle is newer but is gaining momentum. This year, for the first time, the Legislature passed a law that specifically requires textbooks to be scrutinized for any of the odious conservative changes that the Texas Board of Education ordered inserted into its textbooks (such as elevating the inaugural speech of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the same prominence as that of Abraham Lincoln) -- even as California passed another law adding new groups to the list of those that must be praised in our own textbooks.
There’s always going to be a debate over what belongs in a textbook. But we’d feel safer if that debate were conducted by scholars and educators rather than politicians.
Photo: Israel's edited version of a first-grade math textbook for Palestinian students in Arabic-language schools in East Jerusalem, right, omits a Palestinian flag flying over a school that is featured in the Palestinian version. Credit: Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles Times