Paradigm, No. 8 (July, 1992)

Michael W. Apple &Linda K. Christian-Smith (eds) The Politics of the Textbook (New York, London: Routledge, 1991) vii + 290 pp., ISBN 0-415-90223-1, US$14.95 (pbk).

Ian Westbury

Department. of Curriculum & Instruction,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
Education Building,
Champaign, IL 61820, USA.

One of the most intriguing issues circling around the curriculum of American education is concerned with the intersection of the textbook-providing private sector and the schools and school systems which use those textbooks. At one level it is a simple relationship. Private-sector publishers provide books which schools and districts select and use to support their teaching. But the real situation is much more complicated than this simple image suggests! In the absence of any national specification of a curriculum it is textbooks which have long carried and institutionalized, both at symbolic and real levels, the curriculum that, at another level, they support and reflect. In the absence of any curriculum authority at the national level, the publishers that supply these textbooks are, in a real sense, the components of the "U.S. national curriculum development agency", offering sets of national curricular and teaching packages to the 50 states and 15,000-odd local districts.

But there are several wrinkles on this general statement. Some states and large school districts have a role to play in this curriculum development process because they have significant leverage over publishers, for the textbooks which will be used in their schools must be approved by the state. The possibility that a given book or series might not be approved by, say, California or Texas, has of course a significant influence on whether or not a publisher will treat a topic, e.g., evolution, which might create problems in the approval process. Discussions of the quinquennial bidding festivals which determine which texts will be approved for selection by the state’s schools, and where all of these issues aggregate to create a political theatre with a host of goodies and baddies, is a stock theme of any American ‘politics of the textbook’.

At a more technical level there is also a less clearly developed "politics" of the textbook which plays out the themes of provision of textbooks/curricula and approval of textbooks/curricula in a less grand, less Manichean, but no less significant way. Publishers, state departments, local districts, parents, leading and "ordinary" teachers, schools, editors, authors, all groups advocating one or another way forward for the curriculum, have differing interests and goals as players in the process of textbook provision and approval. Publishers face the classical problem of politics -- reconciliation of different interests -- as they try to smooth over and resolve within the pages of one textbook all of the conflicting aspirations of such groups. Indeed, this is perhaps ,the most pervasive and difficult political issue surrounding the American textbook industry.

Apple and Christian-Smith’s collection, The Politics of the Textbook does not -- despite its title -- address neither "politics" nor "textbooks" in the obvious senses that I used these terms above. The "textbook" of the title is really a "curriculum-as- text", with the textbook serving as a proxy for this "text". "Politics" refers to "political activity", struggle, resistance, and transformation within a context of a presumed pervasive hegemonic authority and the possibility of an undefined "freedom". Inevitably, there are those who see more clearly than most what is at stake. The claims made in Apple and Christian-Smith’s Introduction for the significance of the chapters in their collection define this voice: "Texts . . . are part of a complex story of cultural politics. They can signify authority (not always legitimate) or freedom." To recognize this is to recognize also that "our task" as critically- and democratically-minded educators is itself a political one. We must acknowledge and understand the tremendous capacity of dominant institutions to regenerate themselves "not only in their material foundation but in the hearts and minds of people". Yet at the same time, we need never to lose sight of the power of popular organizations -- of real people -- to struggle, resist, and transform them.

Such a starting point defines the way in which Apple and Christian-Smith see the chapters they include in their collection and the voice of these chapters themselves. For example,

Teitelbaum’s chapter on American Socialist Sunday Schools of the early years of the century "serves as a crucial reminder of past struggles to alter the politics of official knowledge".

Taxel’s chapter on the work of the African-American children’s writer, Mildred Taylor, shows that "progressive educators can overcome the selective tradition by uncovering the voices of children’s literature that have been too often silenced in the past, and guaranteeing their availability to our students". Aronowitz and Giroux "deconstruct" the proposals of the conservative curriculum gurus of a couple of years ago, Allen Bloom and E. D. Hirsch. Their arguments "will assist us in countering these tendencies". Didacus Jule, the former Permanent Secretary for Education in the Bishop government in Grenada, describes the critical shifts in the process and politics of text production and content after the initial success of the democratic movement there. We have much to learn from the progressive tendencies such attempts involve. Yet we also need to remember the fragility of such democratic movements in the context of international economic, political and cultural dominance.

As these extracts suggest, there are (to put it mildly) some unusual themes picked up in The Politics of the Textbook. Christian-Smith’s own chapter on ‘Texts and High Tech: Computers, Gender and Book Publishing has no obvious place in the collection and is a potted and simplistic picture of the interactions of technology and business in publishing generally (capitalism is a bad thing; women in publishing are down-trodden). But, more importantly, the starting points often lead to a treatment that seems rather intended to move the reader than stimulate analysis. Apple’s ‘The Culture and Commerce of the Textbook’ is a potted summary of the growing American literature on the textbook publishing industry and its interactions with the school system: it highlights the possible evils and problems of the industry that have been widely addressed in both the recent analytic and journalistic literature on the textbook industry without acknowledging any complexity in the issues. Apple’s bottom-line seems to be that the penetration of commerce into the textbook industry is a bad thing in that it commoditises and canonises potentially lived school knowledge. Marshall’s chapter on the methods of textbook approval in the very important "adoption state" of Texas (important because of its significance in the marketplace) shows that the process is ‘political’ and has little to do with ‘educational values’ -- but we knew that!

Of the 12 chapters in The Politics of the Textbook only four examine the schoolbook/curriculum/text intersection as this might be conventionally understood. I have already sketched the themes of Taxel’s chapter on one children’s author. Sleeter and Grant offer an embarrassingly simplistic content analysis of the presentation of race, class, gender and disability in American elementary school social studies, mathematics, science and reading/language arts textbooks. This analysis, with its enthusiasm for political correctness, i.e., saying and believing the right ‘liberal’ (in the American sense) thing, falls into seemingly unacknowledged internal contradictions. Thus we have on successive pages:

In a few books, one finds a single stereotyped story, for example portraying Blacks as poor and rural . . . (pp. 88-89)

Most books attempt to show people doing "generic" mainstream cultural activities, speaking Standard English, and dressed and living like a ‘generic’ American. This is probably done to avoid stereotyping. But in the. process, authentic experiences that are rooted in ethnicity are shown infrequently. . . (p. 90)

At a more fundamental level, Sleeter and Grant show no awareness of the widely discussed, and essentially political, question of how publishers and authors might deal with this real problem. Their current solution (or, rather, non-solution) is to reflect on the myriad of emerging interests in their books. But, as has been frequently noted, this has more often than not produced "incoherent text", snippets addressing this or that interest without a cohering framework. But what else is possible, given the kind of assault on the books represented in Sleeter and Grant’s chapter where, explicitly, a "new demand", to reflect the disabled, is being articulated?

All in all (and as my discussion of Sleeter and Grant’s chapter indicates) The Politics of the Textbook offers a simplistic, non-analytic and even unreflective, but always "progressive", treatment of its themes. I thought only three of the 12 chapters offered enough to stimulate me to read with sustained appreciative, as distinct from aggravated, attention -- and one of these, Christian-Smith’s discussion of her work on adolescent romantic trade novels, has been the subject of her recent book. Thus, we are left with two chapters, Allan Luke’s discussion of the U.S. Catholic school adaptation in the 1940s of the Dick and Jane readers and Taxel’s discussions of the trade books of Mildred Taylor. Luke makes much hay of the confessional religious and general social sensibility of the period and texts -- which, as we might expect, is different from that of today! Overall, hardly a meaty stew for an American, and a thin gruel for non-Americans. This is a book for a believer in its starting point or a text (perhaps) for a comparatively unsophisticated beginner in teacher education who is willing to face the challenge of thinking through his or her assumptions about the curriculum-as- text. It is not a book for the sophisticated or the serious student of the textbook as a social and political institution.

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