Education, History, USA

Textbooks are not neutral

A few weeks back, there was a news story about a rogue world geography textbook with a couple of historical inconsistencies. The main point of contention involved the choice of language that the textbook used to describe the Atlantic Slave Trade of 16th-19th centuries, particularly its description of the unwilling participants in this system most commonly referred to as “slaves.” Instead, the textbook labels these owned and oppressed peoples with the title of “workers,” and furthermore, refers to the system of human-trafficking that they were forced to endure as if it were a form of “immigration.”

It’s easy to see why these semantical slip-ups created such a stir. On one level, it’s just bad history. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of what the past was, and begs people to arrive at false conclusions when trying to answer the what’s and why’s of history.

On another level, this historical re-write could have potentially dangerous consequences. While words like “workers” and “immigration” certainly sound friendlier than the horrible truths that they replace, they could reinforce some dangerous disbeliefs regarding racism in the United States that far too many Americans already hold today. How are we supposed to convince people that racism is still a problem in the United States if they are taught that it never was?   How are we supposed to address the racism that still exists if we don’t understand where that racism comes from?

“Immigrating workers” may create a more digestable story, but it does so at the expense of a truth that we need to hear in order to fix a problem that’s still very real. We need to hear the ugly truth, not the pretty lie.

This story was treated as an anomaly, a crazy-ass outlier that somehow slipped past the all-seeing auspices of textbook publishers and district curriculum boards. But while this error may have been particularly egregious, what was missing from this story was a larger discussion about the ways that textbooks, particularly history textbooks, shape and sometimes distort the ways that we learn about the world, despite their claims of neutrality.

All textbooks are biased. They are over-simplified mono-narratives that emphasize the stories and perspectives of all things white, male, and European at the expense of those things with more colorful, feminine, or indigenous flavors. Voices of the former take center-stage while those of the latter are relegated to supporting roles and side margins.

This is no accident. The aforementioned geography textbook from publishing giant McGraw-Hill was approved, like most textbooks in the field of social studies, by the Texas State Board of Education, a conservative body responsible for buying 48 million textbooks a year. Approval from this body is often viewed as a green light for publishers to begin marketing nationally. Hence, no matter what corner of the United States we may happen to live in, it shouldn’t surprise us when our textbooks seem to have been baked and barbecued in Texas conservatism.

That being said, you would need to be pretty well practiced in the detection of ethnocentrism to pick up on that conservative bias. That’s because these books are supposed to be neutral—objective presentations that strike an unbiased balance between liberal and conservative principles. And while it’s possible that these books do indeed have a conservative agenda, I think it’s probably much more likely that they are just written by people with conservative worldviews, and that those worldviews are reflected in their writing.

And that’s why their neutrality is bullshit.

To be neutral means to not favor one side over another. It means to give equal voice to all parties, no matter how many parties there may be. This is impossible for a textbook to do, no matter how many pages the authors decide to include.

Nor is neutrality even neutral. The goal of neutrality is to not choose sides, but neutral is a side. By staying out of the conflict, neutral leaves things the way that they are. By refusing to challenge anything, neutral automatically legitimizes all positions, with no consideration given to whether or not all positions are equally deserving of legitimization. By neglecting to ask questions, neutral teaches its readers to do exactly the same.


This is what makes “neutral” textbooks so dangerous. They portray themselves as objective truths, when in reality they are not. All bias is not created equal, and there are certainly more biased accounts out there, but there is a key difference. Usually when reading accounts more traditionally thought of as “biased,” the reader is conscious of that bias. They will evaluate the information with the proverbial grain of salt, and carefully consider how that bias will affect their consideration of what it is they are reading.

With textbooks, it’s the opposite. Readers read the textbook as a neutral report of the topic at hand, all the while being unknowingly persuaded and influenced by the hidden values of the author written between each and every line of text.

Referring to slaves as “workers” is pretty bad, and it deserved every ounce of bad publicity that it recieved. What I would like to hear is more discussion of the larger problem, the one that this particular incident is only a symptom of.

Textbooks have a place in the classroom as a resource, a version, a voice…but never should they be presented as the objective truth. Textbooks are as biased as Howard Zinn and Bill O’Reilly, no matter what they pretend to be. If we don’t treat them that way, if we refuse to be critical of them and challenge their versions of history, our students will continue to grow up believing that early black Americans were migrant workers and that Christopher Columbus discovered America—that important women are the wives of important men and that people of color only exist in the margins.

Slaves were slaves, Columbus was a jackass, and the stories and perspectives of women and people of color have always been important, whether or not society recognized them as important at the time.

Textbooks are not neutral. They do there due diligence in cramming the entire history of a world and/or nation into a 974 page volume, but they are still only one version of the truth. To pretend otherwise is to lead our students down a perilous path where they will believe everything that they read and hear and be susceptible to the very indoctrination that we were hoping to avoid in selecting a “neutral” resource.

So at the end of the day, neutrality is not only something we shouldn’t strive for, it’s something we can’t achieve anyway. History is objective in the sense that it happened the way that it happened, but we still rely on humans to tell us about it. And once a human puts their fingerprints on something, be it history, geography, math, or science, that neutrality ceases to exist.  That is what needs to be recognized and acknowledged, be it textbooks or otherwise.

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